Earlier this year, the Korean Go champion Lee Sedol played a historic five-game match against Google’s AlphaGo, an artificially intelligent computer program. Sedol has 18 world championships to his name. On March 19th, 2016, he lost to software.
High-performance computing today is unprecedentedly powerful. Still, we remain stages away from creating an artificial general intelligence with anywhere near the capabilities of the human mind. We don’t yet understand how general, human-level AI (sometimes referred to as AGI, or strong AI) will work or what influence it will have on our lives and economy. The scale of impact is often compared to the advent of nuclear technology and everyone from Stephen Hawking, to Elon Musk, to the creator of AlphaGo has advised that we proceed with caution.
The nuclear comparison is charged but apt. As with nuclear technology, the worst-case scenario for AI (using the familiar AI abbreviation to general, strong AI)—malevolent superintelligence turns on humanity and tries to kill it—would be globally devastating. Conversely, the optimistic predictions are so blindingly positive (universal economic prosperity, elimination of disease) that we may be biased both by undue fear and optimism.
How to proceed prudently is a challenging question. Conventional regulation would likely delay most AI technologies while allowing potentially dangerous research and development to flourish in unregulated spaces. To foster safe and responsible progress, we should come together across borders and form an international coalition to direct funding and talent to the right places. But we should also enhance human intelligence in advance of AI. If we upgrade the minds we already have, we’ll be better equipped to build and coexist with intelligent machines.
Ideal AI could help billions of diverse people lead better (safer, healthier, happier) lives. If the goal is to build this best-case AI, the engineer that designs this machine will need a much better understanding, greater than any human being living today, of the complex social, neurological and economic questions a society of both intelligent humans and intelligent machines will confront.
We can divide the enhancement of human intelligence into three stages. The first, using technology like Google Search to augment and supplement the human mind, is well underway. Imagine a fifth-grader with a library card in 1996. Now, imagine today’s fifth grader on the Google homepage—a ten-year old in 2016 is just keystrokes from much of human knowledge.
If stage one involves supplementing the mind with technology, then stage two is about amplifying the mind directly. Adaptive learning software personalizes education and makes adjustments to lessons in real-time. If a student is excelling in a lesson, she’ll progress more rapidly. If she’s struggling, the program might switch teaching styles, adjust pacing, or signal to the instructor that additional assistance is needed. Adaptive learning and online education could mean the end to one-size-fits-all education. Integration with virtual and augmented reality could also amplify intelligence in unexpected ways.
Stage three of intelligence enhancement involves a fundamental transformation of the mind. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a non-invasive, FDA-approved treatment in which magnets are applied to the brain (on or near the head of the patient). TMS is currently being used to treat PTSD, autism, and drug-resistant major depression. Sample sizes at facilities like the Brain Treatment Center and University of Louisville are small, and the duration of impact unknown, but high percentages of individuals—up to 90% for a trial with 200 higher-functioning autistic patients—have shown improvement.
TMS is compelling because initial signs show it to be effective for a wide, seemingly unrelated range of neurological conditions. If we can positively affect injured or non-neurotypical brains, we may not be far from improving connections in healthy brains, perhaps enhancing intelligence in a generalized way.
AI appears to be on the horizon, but for now the human mind is the only one we have. We should have a genuine interest in exploring and investing in the technologies that could make us our best possible selves. In doing so we will be will better prepare ourselves to create safe and beneficial machine intelligence.
This essay was originally published at www.wsj.com on June 14, 2016.