Basic instincts

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Science  25 May 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6391, pp. 845-847
DOI: 10.1126/science.360.6391.845

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In their adaptability, young children demonstrate common sense, a kind of intelligence that, so far, computer scientists have struggled to reproduce. Gary Marcus, a developmental cognitive scientist at New York University in New York City, believes the field of artificial intelligence (AI) would do well to learn lessons from young thinkers. Researchers in machine learning argue that computers trained on mountains of data can learn just about anything—including common sense—with few, if any, programmed rules. But Marcus says computer scientists are ignoring decades of work in the cognitive sciences and developmental psychology showing that humans have innate abilities—programmed instincts that appear at birth or in early childhood—that help us think abstractly and flexibly. He believes AI researchers ought to include such instincts in their programs. Yet many computer scientists, riding high on the successes of machine learning, are eagerly exploring the limits of what a naïve AI can do. Computer scientists appreciate simplicity and have an aversion to debugging complex code. Furthermore, big companies such as Facebook and Google are pushing AI in this direction. These companies are most interested in narrowly defined, near-term problems, such as web search and facial recognition, in which blank-slate AI systems can be trained on vast data sets and work remarkably well. But in the longer term, computer scientists expect AIs to take on much tougher tasks that require flexibility and common sense. They want to create chatbots that explain the news, autonomous taxis that can handle chaotic city traffic, and robots that nurse the elderly. Some computer scientists are already trying. Such efforts, researchers hope, will result in AIs that sit somewhere between pure machine learning and pure instinct. They will boot up following some embedded rules, but will also learn as they go.

  • * Matthew Hutson is a journalist based in New York City.

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