You can call me "A.I."

Artificial intelligence may soon reach the point where it can answer questions that make it seem indistinguishable from human intelligence. But machines and humans are a long way from answering the most basic question of all: Where did intelligence itself come from?

Ron Johnson/Peoria Journal Star/AP
Samantha Buckley of Washington, Ill., is swept off her feet by Oscar the Robot at the Heart of Illinois Fair in Peoria.

“Internet” is a workmanlike name for the 50-year-old nervous system of packet switches, servers, and routers that spans the globe; is commonplace in homes, at work, in cars; and absorbs every moment of every smart-phone owner in line at every bus station or coffee shop.

“World Wide Web” is a friendlier term. But it’s essentially the same idea – a phrase that indicates the far-flung threads spun of communications technology. But what’s the name of the result of all the human business that occurs on the Internet, the cumulative effect of quadrillion bits of data being processed, and the prolific harvest of ideas, notions, relationships, associations, riffs, and nonsense that pour out of this wonder of technology? Music, like the Internet, is a technology. “The Marriage of Figaro” is what Mozart named one magnificent result.

In biology, we give intelligent creatures generic names: dust mite, for instance, or humpback whale. Those life-forms we become more familiar with get unique designations, sort of like URLs: Albert Einstein; Cousin Louie, who is likely to say anything at a family dinner; Molly, the terrier who loves to play ball.

As the Web becomes denser and faster year by year, futurists believe there will be a point where it, too, will seem to exhibit unique intelligence. Already, as Greg Lamb notes in a Monitor cover story (click here to read it), IBM’s Watson supercomputer, by tapping the infosphere at hypersonic speed and besting the reigning “Jeopardy!” game show champions, has come close to passing the “Turing test” in which it seems indistinguishable from human intelligence.

When the Mars Curiosity rover follows its advanced programming, makes last-minute adjustments on its own, and lands flawlessly on the fourth planet’s surface; when Google’s autonomous cars navigate California’s highways; or when Apple’s Siri seems to be listening to us and responding with useful information (some of the time, at least) – there’s intelligence at work that is at least as impressive as a dust mite or terrier.

Some scientists refer to the coming age as “transhuman.” More dystopian observers describe the Internet as a “global brain” or “hive mind” and imagine human-machine “cyborgs.” But why be so ominous? When humans act together, we call ourselves “the people,” as in “We, the people” or “The people have spoken.” When we think together via the Internet, that’s us, the people, too. 

For now, we’re calling advanced information technology artificial intelligence, or AI. 

AI has a long history rooted in high levels of logic. As computational power has exploded, the brute force of all that data processing has run rings around the elegant logic trees envisioned by AI pioneers like Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy. The term AI lost its original meaning. Technologists appropriated it. It is artificial because it is human-made. And it increasingly shows signs of intelligence.

No matter how much we rely on and learn from AI, however, it cannot answer the biggest question: Where did intelligence come from? As the biblical Job was asked, “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts? or who has given understanding to the heart?”

Technological achievements are breathtaking. But the original breath each of us took was no human accomplishment. A higher and more profound Intelligence created intelligence.

John Yemma is editor of The Monitor.

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