The Digital Mind: How Science is Redefining Humanity

Following the release in the US,  The Digital Mind, published by MIT Press,  is now available in Europe, at an Amazon store near you (and possibly in other bookstores). The book covers the evolution of technology, leading towards the expected emergence of digital minds.

Here is a short rundown of the book, kindly provided by yours truly, the author.

New technologies have been introduced in human lives at an ever increasing rate, since the first significant advances took place with the cognitive revolution, some 70.000 years ago. Although electronic computers are recent and have been around for only a few decades, they represent just the latest way to process information and create order out of chaos. Before computers, the job of processing information was done by living organisms, which are nothing more than complex information processing devices, created by billions of years of evolution.

Computers execute algorithms, sequences of small steps that, in the end, perform some desired computation, be it simple or complex. Algorithms are everywhere, and they became an integral part of our lives. Evolution is, in itself, a complex and long- running algorithm that created all species on Earth. The most advanced of these species, Homo sapiens, was endowed with a brain that is the most complex information processing device ever devised. Brains enable humans to process information in a way unparalleled by any other species, living or extinct, or by any machine. They provide humans with intelligence, consciousness and, some believe, even with a soul, a characteristic that makes humans different from all other animals and from any machine in existence.

But brains also enabled humans to develop science and technology to a point where it is possible to design computers with a power comparable to that of the human brain. Artificial intelligence will one day make it possible to create intelligent machines and computational biology will one day enable us to model, simulate and understand biological systems and even complete brains with unprecedented levels of detail. From these efforts, new minds will eventually emerge, minds that will emanate from the execution of programs running in powerful computers. These digital minds may one day rival our own, become our partners and replace humans in many tasks. They may usher in a technological singularity, a revolution in human society unlike any other that happened before. They may make humans obsolete and even a threatened species or they make us super-humans or demi-gods.

How will we create these digital minds? How will they change our daily lives? Will we recognize them as equals or will they forever be our slaves? Will we ever be able to simulate truly human-like minds in computers? Will humans transcend the frontiers of biology and become immortal? Will humans remain, forever, the only known intelligence in the universe?


How to create a mind

Ray Kurzweil’s latest book, How to Create a Mind, published in 2012, is an interesting read and shows some welcome change on his views of science and technology. Unlike some of his previous (and influntial) books, including The Singularity is Near, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Age of Intelligent Machines, the main point of this book is not that exponential technological development will bring in a technological singularity in a few decades.


True, that theme is still present, but takes second place to the main theme of the book, a concrete (although incomplete) proposal to build intelligent systems that are inspired in the architecture of the human neocortex.

Kurzweil main point in this book is to present a model of the human neocortex, what he calls The Pattern Recognition Theory of the Mind (PRTM). In this theory, the neocortex is simply a very powerful pattern recognition system, built out of about 300 million (his number, not mine) similar pattern recognizers. The input from each of these recognizers can come from either external inputs, through the senses, or from the older parts (evolutionary speaking) of the brain, or from the output of other pattern recognizers in the neocortex. Each recognizer is relatively simple, and can only recognize a simple pattern (say the word APPLE) but, through complex interconnections with other recognizers above and below, it makes possible all sorts of thinking and abstract reasoning.

Each pattern consists, in its essence, in a short sequence of symbols, and is connected, through bundles of axons, to the actual place in the cortex where these symbols are activated, by another pattern recognizer. In most cases, the memories these recognizers represent must be accessed in a specific order. He gives the example that very few persons can recite the alphabet backwards, or even their social security number, which is taken as evidence of the sequential nature of operation of these pattern recognizers.

The key point of the book is that the actual algorithms used to build and structure a neocortex may soon become well understood, and used to build intelligent machines, embodied with true strong Artificial Intelligence. How to Create a Mind falls somewhat short of the promise in the subtitle, The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, but still makes for some interesting reading.

March of the Machines

The Economist dedicates this week’s special report to Artificial Intelligence and the effects it will have on the economy.


The first article on the report addresses a two centuries old question, which was called, then, the machinery question. First recorded during the industrial revolution, this question asks whether machines will replace so many human jobs as to leave a large fraction of humanity unemployed. The impact on jobs is addressed in more detail in another piece of the report, automation and anxiety and includes a reference to a 2013 article, by Frey and Osborne. This article reportes that 47% of workers in America have jobs at high risk, including many white collar jobs.


Countermeasures to these challenges are discussed in some detail, including the idea of universal basic income but, in the end, The Economist seems to side with the traditional opinion of economists, that technology will ultimately create more jobs than it will destroy.

Other pieces on the report describe the technology behind the most significant recent advances in AI, deep learning and the complex ethical questions raised by the possibility of advances artificial intelligences.

Images in this article are from the print edition of The Economist.



How deep is deep learning, really?

In a recent article, Artificial Intelligence (AI) pioneer and Yale retired professor Roger Schank states that he is “concerned about … the exaggerated claims being made by IBM about their Watson program“. According to Schank, IBM Watson does not really understands the texts it processes, and the IBM claims are baseless, since no deep understanding of the concepts takes place when Watson processes information.

Roger Schank’s argument is an important one and deserves some deeper discussion. First, I will try to summarize the central point of Schank’s argument. Schank has been one of the better known researchers and practitioners of “Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence”, or GOFAI. GOFAI practitioners aimed at creating symbolic models of the world (or of subsets of the world) that were comprehensive enough to support systems able to interpret natural language. Roger Schank is indeed well known for introducing Conceptual Dependency Theory and Case Based Reasoning, well-known GOFAI approaches to natural language understanding.

As Schank states, GOFAI practioners “were making some good progress on getting computers to understand language but, in 1984, AI winter started. AI winter was a result of too many promises about things AI could do that it really could not do.” The AI winter he is referring to, a deep disbelief in the field of AI that lasted more than a decade, was the result of the fact that creating symbolic representations complete enough and robust enough to address real world problems was much harder than it seemed.

The most recent advances in AI, of which IBM Watson is a good example, use mostly statistical methods, like neural networks or support vector machines, to tackle real world problems. Due to much faster computers, better algorithms, and much larger amounts of data available, systems trained using statistical learning techniques, such as deep learningare able to address many real world problems. In particular, they are able to process, with remarkable accuracy, natural language sentences and questions. The essence of Schank’s argument is that this statistical based approach will never lead to true understanding, since true understanding depends on having clear-cut, symbolic representations of the concepts, and that is something statistical learning will never do.

Schank is, I believe, mistaken. The brain is, at its essence, a statistical machine, that learns from statistics and correlations the best way to react. Statistical learning, even if it is not the real thing, may get us very close to the strong Artificial Intelligence. But I will let you make the call.

Watch this brief excerpt of Watson’s participation in the jeopardy competition, and answer by yourself: IBM Watson did, or did not, understand the questions and the riddles?

Meet Ross, our new lawyer

Fortune reports that law firm Baker & Hostetler has hired an artificially intelligent lawyer, Ross. According to the company that created it, Ross Intelligence, the IBM Watson powered digital attorney interacts with other workers as a normal lawyer would.

“You ask your questions in plain English, as you would a colleague, and ROSS then reads through the entire body of law and returns a cited answer and topical readings from legislation, case law and secondary sources to get you up-to-speed quickly.”


Ross will work for the law firm’s bankruptcy practice, which currently employs roughly 50 lawyers. Baker & Hostetler chief information officer explained that the company believes emerging technologies, like cognitive computing and other forms of machine learning, can help enhance the services delivered to their clients. There is no information on the number of lawyers to be replaced by Ross.

Going through large amounts of information stored in plain text and compiling it in usable form is one of the most interesting applications of natural language processing systems, like IBM Watson. If successful, one single system may do the work of hundreds or thousands of specialists, at least in a large fraction of the cases that do not require extensive or involved reasoning. However, as the technology evolves, even these cases may become ultimately amenable to treatment by AI agents.

Picture by Humanrobo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Jill Watson, a robotic teaching assistant, passes the Turing test?

Ashok Goel, a computer science professor at Georgie Institute of Technology, trained a system using IBM Watson technology to behave as a teaching assistant in an artificial intelligence course. The system, named Jill Watson, answered questions, reminded students of deadlines and, generally, provided feedback to the students by email. It was, so to speak, a robotic teaching assistant.


Jill was trained using nearly 40,000 postings available on a discussion forum, and was configured to answer only when the level of confidence was very high, thus avoiding weak answers that would give “her” away. In March, she went online, began posting responses live.

As the Wall Street journal reports, none of the students seemed to notice, and some of them were “flabbergasted” when they were told about the experiment. Some, however, may have harboured doubts, since Jill replied so quickly to the questions posed by the students.

Even though this falls way short of a full-fledged Turing test, it raises significant questions about how effective can AI agents be in replacing professors and teaching assistants, in the task of providing feedback to students. Next year, Ashok Goel plans to tell his students one of the TAs is a computer, but not which one. Like with the Cylons, you know. What could possibly go wrong?