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The discrete charm of intelligence

A very long time ago – long before smartphones first appeared – a very well-known Swedish company, Ericsson, used the word „intelligent” in a TV advertisement of one of its products. „Small, intelligent, tasteful” – concluded the narrator of a short and somewhat flat story starring a telephone; also starring were the telephone owner and three extraterrestrials. I don’t quite get what the „intelligence” of one of the smallest and lightest telephones at the time was all about. Especially that its most advanced feature was voice dial. But the advertisement proved one thing: as early as the last decade of the twentieth century customers were intrigued by products called „intelligent”.

Admittedly, in some respects not much has changed since those days. Today, writing about intelligent solutions we don’t have to use quotation marks, which does not actually mean that such solutions have anything in common with intelligence or even artificial intelligence, as these terms are used in common parlance. But, as practice shows, the term artificial intelligence has an irresistible, seductive appeal, just as the word „intelligent” did at a time when Ericsson was a telecommunications giant.

There have been many attempts to define intelligence – none of them perfect. Generally speaking, the term signifies the ability to do complex tasks. In adopting this definition, courtesy of Max Tegmark, professor of physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, our life is littered with a whole host of intelligent machines. Yet even if we confidently cross all the coffee machines off the list, we cannot despatch with anything like such manner even the least sophisticated computer chess programme. A computer chess programme can achieve a goal which most people can’t even dream about – it can beat a good chess player. But are we really dealing with artificial intelligence here?

Paradoxically, the answer is yes, even though it is hard to find in chess software qualities which we intuitively associate with the intellect. We are talking here about artificial intelligence operating in a very narrow spectrum, an intelligence which is limited and highly specialised. Compared to the conception of intelligence we are prepared to accept, even the most advanced chess programme, based on a network of neurons and capable of learning from one game to another, or a cognitive system which can interpret data, we are actually dealing with a level of development akin to that of a biological virus, which for all we know subsists somewhere on the border between life and inanimate matter. In this case, the expression intelligent software would be much more precise.

If, as in this context, we accept our reality as a benchmark, we may as well bring our discussion to a halt at this point. Currently, there is no known form of artificial intelligence other than that which is limited to the accomplishment of narrowly defined goals. Besides, even this endeavour is not always so successful, as anyone who has ever tried to have a text translated by an online translator knows very well. The idea of an all-round artificial intelligence which would be capable of learning and achieving any goals it chooses to set for itself remains a fantasy whose coming true is outside the realm of our possibilities. Not to mention any artificial intelligence representing still higher levels of development, such as human intelligence. For the time being, it is a chimera – the realm of science fiction. I hope I have not disillusioned you.

It is hard to say with any degree of certainty today when artificial intelligence will reach a level significantly different from where it is now. AI enthusiasts expect a breakthrough any moment now, while even the most optimistic scientists put the date several dozens of years away. Diehard sceptics predict the breakthrough will never come and, at any rate, its result will not be the creation of artificial intelligence of a similar potential as that of a human being. Since any arguments for and against must by their nature refer to scientific research into the workings of the human brain, the nature of consciousness and many other equally complex areas, one has to have a tremendous amount of knowledge and self-confidence to paint such scenarios. For this reason, literature on the subject continues to be scant.

What should we make of all of this? First of all, that, where the IT sector is concerned, we should treat anything labelled artificial intelligence with caution and care. The Ericsson telephone of old I have mentioned earlier had a lot less in common with intelligence than an average washing machine today, to say nothing of the smartphone. This does not mean we can speak in the same breath of the smart washing machine, smart home, smart transport system, neural pathways, cognitive analytics and research into artificial intelligence or artificial consciousness, as if they all belonged on the same list.

I am not a freshly minted aficionado of new technologies, which is why I appreciate how much we owe to intelligent software. I deeply believe it will have a great impact on our lives. My enthusiasm manifests itself in my following developments in areas such as machine learning, deep learning, semantic computing, and robotic process automation. I am convinced they will play an enormous role in our not-too-distant future. But enthusiasm, at least in this case, translates also into increased acuity and utmost respect, which make me exercise extra caution in the language I choose to describe this new technology. The last thing I want is to cheapen the meaning of the words I use. Artificial intelligence, or rather intelligent software, which has nothing in common with our intuitions or science fiction visions of the future is all we need for the moment to launch another technological revolution from business, through medicine, to education. Artificial intelligence invoked in any other sensationalised context (a common occurrence!) remains for the time being and at a juncture we find ourselves in a product of imagination.

„Why does the small smart one stay with the big dumb one?” – wonders one of the extraterrestrials in the advertisement, darting suspicious glances from the phone to its owner. To put it mildly, from today’s perspective, the line sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?

In writing this post I was inspired by a recent reading of Max Tegmark’s book „Life 3.0” (where among other things we learn about the division of artificial intelligence into „narrow” and „general”, etc.) and by the not-so-recent The Emperor’s New Mind, written by Roger Penrose.

For very interesting lectures and interviews with the author of „Life 3.0” (some of whose views I dare question), go to:

And here is Roger Penrose on artificial intelligence and quantum consciousness:

A well-written article describing the benefits of artificial intelligence as it is today (of course, that artificial intelligence which is capable of carrying out narrowly defined tasks):

The advertisement of the Ericsson T28 telephone I refer to can still be seen on:

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