Ben Goertzel Interview – Humans Not the Sharpest Pencil in the Pack

Ben Goertzel is definitely in the running as one of the most brilliant people I’ve had the good fortune of getting to meet myself. He is Chairman of the Board of the OpenCog Foundation, Chief Science Officer at Aidyia Holdings – a financial prediction firm located in Hong Kong, and a prolific writer and researcher in modern artificial intelligence. I caught up with Ben after his return to Philadelphia (visiting family) – following his visit to the 2045 Congress in NYC after a flight in from Hong Kong (where he resides today).

The Technologies to Push Us Further – and Timelines

Ben’s perspective encompasses many domains beyond the study of AI alone, and so I decided first to ask about his thoughts of which technologies would eventually further our human potential the most – and which technologies seemed most likely to do so in the near future. He reflected on the fact that there are many technologies that might eventually get us there, but that individual technologies are not nearly as powerful in allowing us to “blast off” (to use his term) our development as are technologies that permit us greater access to intelligence. “One technology is not as significant as having smarter beings who can create an endless series of new technologies.”

I agree with the sentiment, and indeed it seems that increasing our ability to feel (intelligence) and our ability to feel (sentience) will go hand in hand – and that these are the essence of anything that we not refer to as morally “significant.”

With regard to specific technologies, Ben sees artificial general intelligence (or AGI) and brain-machine interfaces as the first real catalysts to bringing us beyond what is presently “human potential.” Though he is as modest in his speculations as many of my other guests (I have interviewed no one with a crystal ball), he is of the belief that artificial general intelligence will arrive before the advent of seriously “enhancing” implants – mostly due to the messiness and stickiness (no pun intended) of the ethical ramifications of developing these technologies.

Some people believe that the speculations of a “Singularity” in this century are absurd and unreasonable. Ben told me “I’m generally of the Kurzeil-ian, Vinge-ian notion that by half way into this century, the human mind will no longer be the sharpest pencil in the pack.” As an intellectual, this kind of conversation is exciting – but as a writer, these kind of quotes are gold.

The Great Importance of Collaboration

Throughout our communication, Ben made it clear that the pursuits forward in creating AGI will involve cross-disciplinary teams, and expertise from many domains, including: philosophers, programmers, psychologists, mathematicians, neurologists, etc… Indeed, this is one of the reasons he sees a limitation in the efforts of a company like Google aiming to create artificial general intelligence. First, they are – by his account – working on a different problem than he is (IE: maximizing natural language understanding and search), and second, because their resources lie almost exclusively on programmers. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, and how many people you have… if you’re working on a different problem, then you’re more likely to solve that different problem.”

Ben also speaks to the grander scope of not only collaborating on individual problems, but on the entirety of technological progress. Indeed, Ben sees all emerging technology developments as potentially building off of and supporting one another in some way. He sees how nanotechnologies might give us what we need to make a better method of brain imaging, which might give us what we need for a more functional brain-machine interface – or indeed – this better brain imagine might give us insights to create an AGI.

An example that he brings up is the dynamic of computers versus machine tools. Better computers can design better machine tools, and better machine tools can build better computers, ad infinitum. The many domains of emerging technology have a good likelihood of doing the same.

Ben believes that on in individual level, connectedness and collaboration have their pros and cons. He harkens to the old days of AI research were you could sit alone in a room and work on a problem in a “pioneering way” because there was nobody to talk to about those matters. However, Ben sees the loosing of that romantic era of lone-wolf research as a necessary step in the level of increased collaboration and pooled knowledge that we will need in order to love forward to an entirely new dimension of human potential.

Our Best Path Forward

I asked Ben what he thought we might need to bear in mind in order to make this transition forward something aggregately beneficial. I am no pessimist, but I’m also not of the belief that enhancing our human potential comes without many a serious risk (from dangerous AGI to an enhancement of suffering to the empowering of greater acts of terrorism). I articulated the apparent truth that there will always be differing ideologies, and philosophies, and asked how we might maintain harmony in our progress as a species.

Ben responded “I think the very nature of philosophy will change…” He mentioned that even just a few hundred years ago, the sciences and philosophy were seen as unified, and philosophy became more dedicated to narrow questions. He sees a re-convergence of science and philosophy as we’re able to tackle philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness, thought, and perception. We may never solve specific philosophical questions once and for all, but we’ll have the capacity to move them together.

I’d like to say an additional “Thanks” to Ben for taking the time to catch up amidst his travels, and for sharing his thoughts. You can learn more about Ben’s OpenCog project here, in addition to his personal blog.

In addition you can support Ben’s newest project on building the world’s smartest robot on IndieGoGo!


-Daniel Faggella