The Future of Computing May Not Be AI

IA Wait but Why

Intelligence Amplification (IA) is AI’s quieter cousin, and it’s already enhancing every aspect of our lives.

AI is everywhere. Or so it seems.

Artificial Intelligence, once restricted to the likes of Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells, seems to be pervading our personal and professional lives whether we like it or not, and we keep hearing about it in the media. On the one hand, we fear it: robots will take over our jobs on their way to world domination. On the other, we embrace it: self-driving cars and data-driven decision making promise an efficient and prosperous future.

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But as the term has exploded, so has the confusion around what it means.

“Artificial Intelligence” is a label we’ve come to use broadly, indiscriminately. So much so that, according to The Atlantic, the term itself has become meaningless:

So what is artificial intelligence?

Technically, a system must have two distinct characteristics to truly constitute artificial intelligence, according to Ian Bogost, Professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech:

1.    Real AI must evolve in response to its environment.

“Fictional robots and cyborgs do this invisibly, by the magic of narrative abstraction,” says Bogost. So does Netflix’s dynamic optimizer, which uses data from human viewers to train an algorithm that optimizes video quality frame by frame.

In a more sci-fi example, Microsoft’s AI chatbot, Tay, was designed to become more adept at “casual and playful conversation” as it conversed with human users. However, it took less than 24 hours on Twitter for Tay to adopt a regressive, racist attitude that was far from its creators’ intention.

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2.    Real AI must accomplish tasks that require human effort and reasoning

To a degree, to be an AI, a system must be doing something interesting. This requirement sets artificial intelligence apart from simple automation. A robot that takes a human’s place in an assembly line is not an AI. A neural network that learns from existing scores and composes its own classical music, on the other hand — that’s real Artificial Intelligence.

What all this means is that many of the technologies we refer to as “Artificial Intelligence” are really nothing of the sort:

“Artificial intelligence, it seems, has a PR problem. While it’s true that today’s machines can credibly perform many tasks (playing chess, driving cars) that were once reserved for humans, that doesn’t mean that the machines are growing more intelligent and ambitious. It just means they’re doing what we built them to do.”

Jerry Kaplan, Artificial Intelligence Expert & Futurist, Stanford University

So if AI implies a system that can work and evolve outside our direct control, let me introduce you to Intelligence Amplification (IA), which is a lot friendlier:

“The distinction between AI and IA is as simple as it is significant. AI makes machines autonomous and detached from humans; IA, in on the other hand, puts humans in control and leverages computing power to amplify our capabilities.”

Anant Jhingran, CTO, Apigee

Where did this concept come from?

Intelligence Amplification (also referred to as “Intelligence Augmentation” or “Human Intelligence” as a way to draw distinction from AI) dates back to the 1950s, when William Ashbhy introduced it in his Introduction to Cybernetics.

The next innovation came from cyber pioneer Doug Engelbart. He wrote in the 70’s about how augmentation, not automation, is the sweet spot for human-computer interaction. He invented the mouse, which many consider to be the first augmentation in a long process of human-computer innovation whose applications include the basics — mouse and keyboard — all the way to touchscreens, smartphones, augmented and virtual reality, and even microchip implants for humans.

Today, countless researchers and institutions are working on astonishing developments in the Intelligence Amplification space.

Some are working toward medical advancements that would once have seemed impossible:

  • Edward Boyden, head of MIT Media Lab’s Synthetic Neurobiology group, is developing technologies to analyze and repair biological functions of the brain.
  • CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is becoming a powerful tool that enables researchers to correct genetic defects, treat and prevent disease, and more. While we can’t automate those design choices or start from scratch, CRISPR and similar technologies empower us to gain more control over our health and actually help direct evolution.
  • Ted Berger, leading a group at USC, is building models to predict neural signals that will enable researchers to build devices to support or replace function in damaged parts of the brain.
  • Braintree founder Bryan Johnson just launched Kernel to develop the first “neuroprosthesis for cognition,” a tiny, implantable chip that will boost intelligence, memory, and other cognitive functions, primarily in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or other brain damage.

But the most-talked-about potential for intelligence amplification is to “supercharge” the otherwise healthy human brain.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil envisions cell-sized nanobots that will connect us to the cloud so we can download skills and information we need. “Our thinking, then, will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological thinking,” he predicted at a recent Exponential Finance conference.

And Kurzweil isn’t alone. Elon Musk just launched his newest company, Neuralink, which is working on an early-stage technology whose goal is to connect humans to computers by laying this “neural lace” on the brain. According to Business Insider, this is the logical apex of Smartphone technology. And, for what it’s worth, Tim Urban is on board.

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“Not only is Elon’s new venture—Neuralink—the same type of deal, but six weeks after first learning about the company, I’m convinced that it somehow manages to eclipse Tesla and SpaceX in both the boldness of its engineering undertaking and the grandeur of its mission. The other two companies aim to redefine what future humans will do—Neuralink wants to redefine what future humans will be.”

– Tim Urban, Wait but Why

Some of these examples are probably ringing a bell, so why is “Intelligence Amplification” still unfamiliar?

Because people are TERRIFIED of artificial intelligence. We can’t stop talking about it — online, in the office, at the bar on the weekend. And it’s easy enough to drop these new technologies in the same bucket, whether (incorrectly) as an extension of AI or as our last hope for keeping up with the robots.

So, with AI taking center stage, we don’t talk about IA much.

I think this is a shame.

The Future is Intelligence Amplification, Not Artificial Intelligence

Let’s make another comparison. The distinction between Artificial Intelligence and Intelligence Amplification is similar to the distinction between Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. VR transports you to a whole new environment and removes you from society the same way AI takes over your tasks and removes you from your work. While AR and IA simply help you become smarter and more efficient in your space and your work. Like Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality is more heavily hyped than its counterpart. But in reality, technology companies like Apple and Facebook are trending toward the softer systems of Augmented Reality and Intelligence Amplification.

Intelligence Amplification improves our personal and professional lives in countless ways.

Just as language first connected the collective intelligence of people through communication, and the industrial revolution automated much of the physical drudgery and freed humans for more fulfilling work, Intelligence Amplification is poised to alleviate mental drudgery and free up our capacity for more innovation and strategic thinking.

Intelligence Amplification Plays a Critical Role in Our Work at QC

At Quantified Communications, we care about IA because it’s closely aligned with what we do.

Our analytics platform could be perceived as falling into the broad “AI” category. But what we’re really doing is leveraging the power of behavioral data and human intelligence to make people smarter about the way they communicate.

In the same way doctors use IA to take the time and grunt work out of analyzing new data and research, the QC platform eliminates the inefficiencies and subjectivity of traditional communication evaluation and feedback methods, like focus groups or manual coding.

Instead, we synthesize the feedback and benchmarking power of millions of responses to millions of different types of communication — a quantity of data that no single human brain could ever process.

That’s Intelligence Amplification.

The (Augmented) Future

Let’s be honest. Artificial Intelligence is scary.

We are building robots that can think, learn, train themselves, and act on their own accord. So what happens to people?

If you ask Elon Musk, we become irrelevant unless we merge with those robots. Hence his efforts to augment humans to keep up with the machines.

AI is about automating everything into true machine intelligence, and if we do that, people cease to matter.

But Intelligence Amplification is a good thing. IA keeps us humans in the driver’s seat and enables us to grow faster than we automate. Soon, this ability to augment what we can already do will be essential for relevance — and maybe even survival.

IA is a step toward the future, and I’m excited that we humans are part of it.