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Artificial Consciousness? No. Computer Vision? Absolutely.

Artificial Consciousness? No. Computer Vision? Absolutely.

TNT: Researchers in England are celebrating a “thinking computer” that can’t think. In California, Google is road testing a car you can’t drive. And it’s the second that will be much more useful.

When publishing these messages, I usually try to focus upon technological developments with immediate implications for your business. In this case, I think the impact is still a few years off, but the topic is important and – at least to me – fascinating, so I hope it meets with your interest as well.

The Royal Society in London claims that a group of developers have finally beaten the so-called “Turing Test,” a measure of artificial intelligence. The program portrayed itself as a thirteen-year-old Ukrainian boy, which fooled one out of three judges into thinking it was a human being.

To me, this says more about the limits of artificial intelligence than it does about its successes. The program does not reflect either consciousness or actual thinking. It is a methodically programmed “chatbot” using the guise of a thirteen-year-old non-native English speaker in order to cover for its errors.

The test in question was an experiment proposed by Alan Turing in 1950, four years before his death. Per Wikipedia: “The idea was that a computer could be said to ‘think’ if a human interrogator could not tell it apart, through conversation, from a human being. In the paper, Turing suggested that rather than building a program to simulate the adult mind, it would be better rather to produce a simpler one to simulate a child’s mind and then to subject it to a course of education.” In other words, the goal was to develop a true artificial consciousness in the computer, and then teach it up to adulthood.

Not only this winner, but all contestants in Turing Test contests around the world, are simply careful programming designed to imitate how people would react in conversation. We remain, in the end, no closer to developing an artificial consciousness than we were six decades ago. Today there are supercomputers that can process information faster than we do, and have a larger memory (with much faster and more precise recall). But a Paramecium is more self-aware.

What Google is testing, on the other hand, shows us where computer intelligence can truly succeed. They are now road testing a vehicle that has no steering wheel – you simply tell it where to go, and it takes you there. Their initial testing focuses upon local driving, but I think we will see the most profound impact out on the highways. A robotic vehicle will never stray out of its lane, fall asleep, or be distracted. It will maintain safe distance at all times; programmed correctly, will never cause a rear end collision. I suspect it will prove much less expensive to insure!

Google has posted a video of their prototype in action, and it’s certainly compelling.

WHAT TO DO: Unless you’re in the transportation or shipping industry, there’s not much more to be done than wait and see. If I were in either of those, I’d be mapping out the logistics of a fleet of trucks or buses that only needed isolated drivers “on call” to be able to respond to a disabled vehicle.

In my opinion, the Turing Test has proven only that consciousness is a vastly more mysterious and complex subject than scientists were willing to admit. But it’s certainly going to be interesting to see what comes of Google’s efforts.

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