Voices in AI – Episode 45: A Conversation with Stephen Wolfram

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In this episode, Byron and Stephen discuss computational intelligence and what’s happening in the brain.

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Byron Reese: This is Voices in AI, brought to you by GigaOm. I’m Byron Reese. Today my guest is Stephen Wolfram. Few people can be said to literally need no introduction, but he is one of them. Anyway, as a refresher, Stephen Wolfram exploded into the world as a child prodigy who made all kinds of contributions to physics. He worked with Richard Feynman for years. But, unlike many prodigies, he didn’t peak at 18, or 28, or 38, or 48. In fact, he probably hasn’t peaked at all right now. He went on to create Mathematica, which is the closest thing the world has to math as a language. He wrote his magnum opus, a book called ‘A New Kind of Science.’ And he created Wolfram Alpha, an answer engine that grows better and better every day. Welcome to the show, Stephen.

Stephen Wolfram: Thanks.

I usually start off by asking, what is artificial intelligence? But I want to ask you a different question. What is intelligence?

It’s a complicated and slippery concept. It’s useful to start, maybe, in thinking about what may be an easier concept, what is life? You might think that was an easy thing to define. Here on Earth, you can pretty much tell whether something is alive or not. You dig down, you look in a microscope, you figure out does it have RNA, does it have cell membrane? Does it have all those kinds of things that are characteristic of life as we know it on Earth? The question is, what abstractly is something like life? And, we just don’t really know. I remember when I was a kid, there were these spacecrafts sent to Mars, and they would dig up soil, and they had this definitive test for life at some point which was, you feed it sugar and you see whether it metabolizes it. I doubt that in an abstract sense that’s a good, fundamental definition of life. In the case of life on Earth, we kind of have a definition because it’s connected by this, sort of, thread of history. All life is, kind of, connected by a thread of history. It’s sort of the same thing with intelligence. If you ask, what is the fundamental essence of intelligence? Well, in the case of the intelligence that we know with humans and so on, it’s all connected by a thread of history. If we ask, what is intelligence abstractly? That’s a much harder question, and it’s one I’ve thought about for a long time. What’s necessary to say that something is intelligent is for it to be capable of some level of sophisticated computation. If all the thing does is to, kind of, add two numbers together, and that’s the only thing it can do, we’re not going to likely consider it intelligent.

But your theory is that hurricanes are computational and icicles, and DNA.

Absolutely.

And so they’re all intelligent?

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