By Yasuki Okai, President, NRI Holdings America
While many people have probably had their fill of this topic, artificial intelligence is attracting greater attention, and all this buzz is fueling debates over what—if anything—can only be done by human beings. As many experts have pointed out, one thing that people can do but that AI is said to have trouble with (for now, anyway) is the abstraction of concepts. Although AI has reached the level where it can surpass human beings at learning based on the data it’s given, in terms of being able to reliably respond even in situations where there’s not much data available for learning, it still lags far behind us. The abstraction of concepts is said to be deeply involved in the ability to derive some sort of answer in the absence of data and survive in the face of environmental changes.
There’s even a possibility that sleep plays a role in the abstraction of concepts. Sleep is one phenomenon that occurs in the human brain but is not found in AI. This notion gained notice after a paper written in the 1980s on the function of sleep by Francis Crick, one of the scientists who won the Nobel Prize for discovering DNA’s double helix structure. During sleep—especially REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, we recall in our dreams whatever has stuck with us from the various information we’ve picked up in our daytime experiences, and our brains organize the information they contain by unlearning (i.e. forgetting) things we’ve recalled, as the theory goes. The reason that sleep disruptions can lead to neuroses and a decline in our cognitive abilities is that they delay this neural housecleaning, and computer simulations have indicated that sleep possesses an information sorting effect. If you think about it, the phenomenon of sleep—which by leaving us defenseless would seem to put us at a clear disadvantage in the struggle for survival—can only have endured in higher-level organisms after tens of millions of years of evolution because sleeping plays some very important functions. The theory that sleep is useful for organizing the information in our brains and for abstracting concepts in the development of that information is believed to hold great potential.
That said, it seems unreasonable to believe that all our abstract concepts are things we humans have created just by learning from our experiences. Renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has said that when we consider the speed with which people acquire languages or the resemblance in conceptual structures among different languages, for example, we can’t help but think that many fundamental abstract concepts are inherently present deep within the human mind. Basic concepts like “parent” or “child,” “hot” or “painful” are very likely stored in our brains from the start. This suggests that our evolution has given us a set of essential concepts that are deeply etched into our brain structures, which presents yet another fascinating hypothesis.
Supposing we equip AI with the basic concepts needed for survival and have it sort through information every day though unlearning, could we make AI more human? It surely can’t be as simple as that, but then again, we can always dream.