Open any newspaper, on-screen or off, and you'll find that scientific controversy underlies many of the day's most hotly debated issues. The arguments surrounding genetically modified organisms, the threat of artificial intelligence to human existence, and stem cell research are exemplary. Science, a domain that we might naively expect to provide objective knowledge and definitive answers, has always been and will remain forever contested. What is the non-expert--that is, most of us--to do? For most issues, interpreting research findings or parsing the academic debate is infeasible.
Before Josh McDermott was a neuroscientist, he was a club DJ in Boston and Minneapolis. He saw first-hand how music could unite people in sound, rhythm, and emotion. "One of the reasons it was so fun to DJ is that, by playing different pieces of music, you can transform the vibe in a roomful of people," he says. With his club days behind him, McDermott now ventures into the effects of sound and music in his lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is an assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. In 2015, he and a post-doctoral colleague, Sam Norman-Haignere, and Nancy Kanwisher, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT, made news by locating a neural pathway activated by music and music alone.
Every year, more than a billion people around the world celebrate Chinese New Year and engage in a subtle linguistic dance with luck. You can think of it as a set of holiday rituals that resemble a courtship. To lure good fortune into their lives, they may decorate their homes and doors with paper cutouts of lucky words or phrases. Those who need a haircut make sure to get one before the New Year, as the word for "hair" (fa) sounds like the word for "prosperity"--and who wants to snip away prosperity, even if it's just a trim? The menu of food served at festive meals often includes fish, because its name (yu) sounds the same as the word for "surplus"; a type of algae known as fat choy because in Cantonese it sounds like "get rich"; and oranges, because in certain regions their name sounds like the word for "luck."
The brain is complex; in humans it consists of about 100 billion neurons, making on the order of 100 trillion connections. It is often compared with another complex system that has enormous problem-solving power: the digital computer. Both the brain and the computer contain a large number of elementary units--neurons and transistors, respectively--that are wired into complex circuits to process information conveyed by electrical signals. At a global level, the architectures of the brain and the computer resemble each other, consisting of largely separate circuits for input, output, central processing, and memory.1 Which has more problem-solving power--the brain or the computer? Given the rapid advances in computer technology in the past decades, you might think that the computer has the edge.
In 2016, a Mercedes-Benz executive was quoted as saying that the company's self-driving autos would put the safety of its own occupants first. This comment brought harsh reactions about luxury cars mowing down innocent bystanders until the company walked back the original statement. Yet protecting the driver at any cost is what drivers want: A recently published study in Science (available to read on arXiv) shows that, though in principle people want intelligent cars to save as many lives as possible (like avoiding hitting a crowd of children, for example), they also want a car that will protect its occupants first. It would be hard to trust this algorithm because we--the humans nominally in charge of the A.I.--don't ourselves have the "right" ethical answer to this dilemma. Besides, and potentially worse, the algorithm itself might change.
I have two children, and they are a study in contrasts: My son works at a gym designing and building rock-climbing walls; In his spare time, he climbs them. My daughter is a Ph.D. student in immunology; In her spare time, she writes novels. My son is the sort of person you want around in a crisis, cool-headed and springing to action. Let's just say my daughter is not. My son spends money as soon as he earns it.
In November of 2012, Jan Scheuermann did something she never thought she would do again: She fed herself a piece of chocolate. For the last decade Scheuermann, 54, has been a prisoner in her own body. She suffers from a mysterious degenerative disorder that attacks the nervous system, severing the connections between the brain and muscles. Now a quadriplegic, Scheuermann has no movement below her neck. She can't move her limbs, let alone grasp, move, or hold anything.
Solar-powered self-driving cars, reusable space ships, Hyperloop transportation, a mission to colonize Mars: Elon Musk is hell-bent on turning these once-far-fetched fantasies into reality. But none of these technologies has made him as leery as artificial intelligence. At Code Conference 2016, Musk stated publicly that given the current rate of A.I. advancement, humans could ultimately expect to be left behind--cognitively, intellectually--"by a lot." His solution to this unappealing fate is a novel brain-computer interface similar to the implantable "neural lace" described by the Scottish novelist Iain M. Banks in Look to Windward, part of his "Culture series" books. Along with serving as a rite of passage, it upgrades the human brain to be more competitive against A.I.'s with human-level or higher intelligence.
Presbyterian reverend Thomas Bayes had no reason to suspect he'd make any lasting contribution to humankind. Born in England at the beginning of the 18th century, Bayes was a quiet and questioning man. He published only two works in his lifetime. In 1731, he wrote a defense of God's--and the British monarchy's--"divine benevolence," and in 1736, an anonymous defense of the logic of Isaac Newton's calculus. Yet an argument he wrote before his death in 1761 would shape the course of history.
What if physiologists were the only people who study human behavior at all scales: from how the human body functions, to how social norms emerge, to how the stock market functions, to how we create, share, and consume culture? What if neuroscientists were the only people tasked with studying criminal behavior, designing educational curricula, and devising policies to fight tax evasion? Despite their growing influence on our lives, our study of AI agents is conducted this way--by a very specific group of people. Those scientists who create AI agents--namely, computer scientists and roboticists--are almost exclusively the same scientists who study the behavior of AI agents. We cannot certify that an AI agent is ethical by looking at its source code, any more than we can certify that humans are good by scanning their brains.