Dr. Cliff Pickover, a resident of Yorktown, just published his 50th book, entitled Artificial Intelligence: An Illustrated History, From Medical Robots to Neural Networks. I thought it might be interesting to spend some time with him. He graciously agreed to answer my questions.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself.
Cliff: Jim, thanks for this excellent conversation. I’m a book author who has published 50 books, been granted 620 patents, and have 35,000 Twitter followers. I often tweet about subjects covered in my books.
Q: Why did you pick AI as the focus of your recent book?
Cliff: I’ve always had a fascination for topics on the borderlands of science and science fiction, which makes us question the limits of thought and the future of humanity. The applications of AI seem limitless, and the history of AI is loaded with surprises. For example, readers of my book will also learn about humanity’s ancient fascination with automatons and lifelike machines.
Q: As you state in your Introduction, your target is to reach a wide audience. Consequently, you only briefly cover each topic. Have you ever published a more in-depth analysis of this topic in scientific journals or elsewhere?
Cliff: In order to engage the reader, I purposely keep each book entry brief and include a full-page, color illustration for each topic. However, I cover a huge panoply of subject matter, spanning back more than one thousand years. You asked about my publications. My hundreds of granted patents cover numerous computer-related topics, including AI. Also, since my early days, during my doctoral research at Yale, I’ve published hundreds of technical papers in scientific journals on subjects including computers and creativity, recreational mathematics, scientific visualization, and more.
Q: You are a delightfully inquisitive person who is in a constant state of wonder and, therefore, it’s not a surprise that you intend to cultivate the same sentiment in your readers. In the responses you have received over the years, do you feel that your work has succeeded.
Cliff: I’m delighted by the feedback I receive from readers, and on Twitter. People of all ages tell me that I’ve shaped or inspired them. I view my book-writing career as a means of reaching others, and the dozens of foreign-language translations of my books also increase that connection.
Q: On page 97 you touch upon the topic of transhumanism. You raise the idea that if we lived for one thousand years, we may very well become different people. You would not be “you.” In your opinion, at what point would that happen? What is the dividing line between me and a new, completely different me?
Cliff: If your body or mind could survive indefinitely, would “you” actually persist? All of us are changed by our experiences-and these changes are usually gradual, which means that you are nearly the same person that you were a year ago. However, if your normal or enhanced body survived continuously for a thousand years, gradual mental changes would accumulate, and perhaps an entirely different person would eventually inhabit the body. The thousand-year-old person might be nothing like you. You would no longer exist. There would be no moment of death at which you had ceased to exist, but you would slowly fade away over the millennia, like a sand castle being transformed by an ocean of time.
Q: What is the line of demarcation, in your opinion, between machine and human? If our entire consciousness and neural networking is duplicated into a computer, is that still a human?
Cliff: Today, there are obvious differences between AI machines, with electronic circuitry, and us. However, we may wonder if all intelligence is actually a form of “machine intelligence,” just operating on different forms of hardware. If so, perhaps an electronic machine will one day have most of the attributes we associate with people, such as emotions and consciousness.
Q: Some scientists believe that if robots, or other AI systems, took over that they couldn’t do a worse job than we humans are doing. What’s your take on this?
Cliff: Although there are certainly concerns about the rapid rise of AI, I generally take a positive outlook in which these AI entities will become our partners, inspiring us to undertake and understand new areas of research, improving our health through enhanced medical diagnoses, creating safer vehicles and transportation, and helping us evolve smarter decisions to preserve our planet. However, as you alluded to, we’ll need to be careful that bias and errors are minimized in AI systems, just as we do with people.
Q: On page 139, you focus on Searle’s Chinese Room test. I was curious why you didn’t include this in your Turing test (page 83) since this was Searle’s supposed refutation of Alan Turing?
Cliff: The Chinese Room is a fascinating thought experiment that makes us wonder about minds, consciousness, and understanding-so much so that I wanted to devote an entire, separate, chronologically dated entry to it. The book entries are ordered in time, so that readers may glimpse an evolution of the subject matter.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the so-called “AI death predictor” and how it can be so accurate?
Cliff: The AI-based death predictors make use of medical records to estimate the longevity of a patient. You also asked about accuracy. The workings of machine learning, which can be used to discover patterns in our world and make predictions, can yield amazing, yet sometimes mysterious, insights. In other words, AI systems can find patterns in large amounts of information, through a technique called “deep learning,” but we often do not fully understand how they reached their useful conclusions. The systems inspire us to learn more about the hidden patterns in our reality.
Q: You and I have often talked about the idea of living in a computer simulation. Why do you think it’s okay to do so if it makes you happy?
Cliff: I once asked on Twitter (@pickover) the provocative question: “If you were offered the opportunity to leave this life, enter a computer simulation, and be guaranteed hundreds of years of adventure, bliss, happiness, contentment, peace, romance, and perfect health, with no pain, would you consider taking the offer?” Fifty percent (50%) of the respondents said “yes.” I am not sure I could turn down years of happiness, health, adventure, and bliss. Could you?
Q: There is a raging philosophical debate about whether science describes or explains the world. What is your opinion?
Cliff: I tend to focus on scientific models of phenomena, and on how these models and theories fit observations or make predictions. Knowledge moves in an ever-expanding, upward-pointing funnel. From the rim, we look down and see previous knowledge from a new perspective as new theories are formed. Today’s conjectures mutate, new theories evolve, and yesterday’s impossibilities become part of everyday life.
Q: Thank you so much for your time and responses....Oh, by the way, what’s the easiest way to order your book?
Cliff: Readers can visit my webpage, Pickover.com, to learn more about my books and where to find them.