Stephen Hawking has said, “The development of full AI could spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk has tweeted that AI is a greater threat to humans than nuclear weapons. When extremely intelligent people are concerned about the threat of AI, one can’t help but wonder what’s in store for humanity.
Throughout history, people have compared the brain to different inventions. In the past, the brain has been said to be like a water clock and a telephone switchboard. These days, the favorite invention that the brain is compared to is a computer. Some people use this comparison to say that the computer is better than the brain; some people say that the comparison shows that the brain is better than the computer. Perhaps, it is best to say that the brain is better at doing some jobs and the computer is better at doing other jobs.
It is hard to know whether or not to lie awake at night worrying about AI’s threat to humanity, but the idea that machines can get much smarter is important to all of us. Learning machines are fundamentally different from other technologies. Steamships can’t make themselves into better steamships, but smart machines can make themselves smarter.
In many ways, machine learning is already a reality, though many people might not realize it. Any interaction you have with Siri, Google, Netflix, or Amazon is influenced by machines that make themselves better. At Starwood, we used machine learning to improve our targeted special offers and hotel revenue management systems. Machine learning today is helping companies interpret data, learn from missed forecasts, and find new correlations. Though the analytics may be sophisticated, so far the interactions with people are nowhere near “human.” Siri can access a lot of information, but she is still pretty robotic.
Digital technology is the ultimate story of an accelerating trend line. Computers used to be rare, expensive, and hard to use. Now, smart machines are cheap and ubiquitous. Soon, we will be online all the time, along with most of our appliances, tools, and vehicles. Sensors that monitor our health and alert us to potential dangers will be everywhere. Thinking machines and the Internet will connect seamlessly with our lives and become a natural component to how we make sense of the world. Now let’s see how the brain and the computer are similar and different.
Similarities between the Human Brain & Computers
- Both use electrical signals to send messages.
- Both transmit information.
- Both have a memory that can grow.
- Both can adapt and learn.
- Both have evolved over time.
- Both need energy.
- Both can be damaged.
- Both can change and be modified.
- Both can do math and other logical tasks.
- Both brains and computers are studied by scientists.
Differences between the Human Brain & Computers
- The brain uses chemicals to transmit information; the computer uses electricity. Even though electrical signals travel at high speeds in the nervous system, they travel even faster through the wires in a computer.
- A computer uses switches that are either on or off (“binary”). In a way, neurons in the brain are either on or off by either firing an action potential or not firing an action potential. However, neurons are more than just on or off because the “excitability” of a neuron is always changing. This is because a neuron is constantly getting information from other cells through synaptic contacts. Information traveling across a synapse does NOT always result in a action potential. Rather, this information alters the chance that an action potential will be produced by raising or lowering the threshold of the neuron.
- Computer memory grows by adding computer chips. Memories in the brain grow by stronger synaptic connections.
- It is much easier and faster for the brain to learn new things. Yet, the computer can do many complex tasks at the same time (“multitasking”) that are difficult for the brain. For example, try counting backwards and multiplying 2 numbers at the same time. However, the brain also does some multitasking using the autonomic nervous system. For example, the brain controls breathing, heart rate and blood pressure at the same time it performs a mental task.
- The human brain has weighed in at about 3 pounds for about the last 100,000 years. Computers have evolved much faster than the human brain. Computers have been around for only a few decades, yet rapid technological advancements have made computers faster, smaller and more powerful.
- The brain needs nutrients like oxygen and sugar for power; the computer needs electricity to keep working.
- It is easier to fix a computer – just get new parts. There are no new or used parts for the brain. However, some work is being done with transplantation of nerve cells for certain neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Both a computer and a brain can get “sick” – a computer can get a “virus” and there are many diseases that affect the brain. The brain has “built-in back up systems” in some cases. If one pathway in the brain is damaged, there is often another pathway that will take over this function of the damaged pathway.
- The brain is always changing and being modified. There is no “off” for the brain – even when an animal is sleeping, its brain is still active and working. The computer only changes when new hardware or software is added or something is saved in memory. There IS an “off” for a computer. When the power to a computer is turned off, signals are not transmitted.
- The computer is faster at doing logical things and computations. However, the brain is better at interpreting the outside world and coming up with new ideas. The brain is capable of imagination.
- Scientists understand how computers work. There are thousands of neuroscientists studying the brain. Nevertheless, there is still much more to learn about the brain. “There is more we do NOT know about the brain, than what we do know about the brain”
We all (as individuals, companies, and countries) have to get ready for disruptors that we cannot foresee. Technology lies behind global development and alters how people live. It affects every job, every human activity. It makes services, health care, and information available in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. Along the way, it upsets social norms, disrupts industries, and dislocates workers. The pace of ever-improving technology shows no signs of letting up. Advancing AI can seem scary, but it also poses great opportunity. Every business will have to think about what it means for them. What will the next couple of decades bring?