Sunday, December 02, 2007

Intelligence: Artificial vs. [real | natural]

I'm watching Jeff Hawkins's TED talk and I recommend it. However I am
annoyed by the same thing that annoyed me when I read his interesting
book On Intelligence: his use of the term "real intelligence."

He's got this theory of the brain and what intelligence is and how it
works. In his mind it's different from the way AI researchers frame
it, so he wants to distinguish himself from it, so rather than calling
what he does "artificial intelligence," he calls it "real
intelligence." It's manipulative rhetoric and I disapprove.

The term "artificial intelligence" is a little unfortunate because the
word "artificial" has multiple senses. The intended meaning is
that it is made by people. In this sense the opposite of
"artificial" is "natural." AI is different from your mind in that the
former is artificial where your mind is natural.

The other sense of "artificial" means, basically, "fake." The
opposite of this sense of the word is "real." Along with
this sense come the feelings that artificial things are worse than the

So the rhetorical move Hawkins makes is to deliberately misinterpret
the intended sense of "artificial" and distinguish himself from
that. The effect is to make AI look like a sham, a crappy imitation,
worse than real, a pale imitation. His company is making AI, just like
lots of other people, but he doesn't call it that. Just because his
AIs are inspired by brain theory doesn't mean they are not human-made.

So if you're reading this, Jeff Hawkins, shame on you. That said, your
book is pretty good otherwise.

It's part of a disturbing phenomenon. The term "artificial
intelligence" has kind of a bad reputation (for a bit of discussion on
this topic see my other post at
People then want to distance themselves from the term. I think it's

I tell people proudly that I'm an
artificial intelligence researcher and try to deal politely with
hearing the same joke over and over*, as well as the reactions of
fear** and skepticism***. I try to make AI sound as good as I can.

Sometimes words need healing.

* The joke follows the same strategy Hawkins uses: they point to their
friend and say "that's what he's got" or some such. Christ on a crutch
I'm sick of hearing that joke. The deliberate misinterpretation of the
sense of "artificial" is forgivable in a joke, but not in a scholarly

** People often say "that's scary." The movies people tend to watch
that feature AI often involve the AI being evil: The Terminator
movies, War Games, The Matrix movies, Alien, Battlestar Galactica, I
Robot, 2001, etc. I encourage people to think R2D2, not the liquid metal T-1000.

*** People sometimes flat out tell me AI is impossible. It always
amazes me that people with no training in AI or psychology can be so
sure of themselves about this. They will eat their words someday.

1 comment:

Neal said...

Hey, I've bought into the terminological taint (for lack of a better term) now associated with "Artificial Intelligence"... [I blame Dreyfus, amongst others]

As such, I tend to use the term "synthetic intelligence" - because synthetic actually means what I want it to (and pretty much only that).