An Interview With Dr. Arlindo Oliveira

Science is changing how we look at humans as a whole, regarding our function and ability. Each day comes with new technology that makes us rethink things we have done for generations. Organisms have to become more and more sophisticated to stay competitive in a landscape involving both people and competent digital Dr. Arlindo Oliveira explores the concept of this changing landscape in his book The Digital Mind: How Science Is Redefining Humanity.

Dr. Oliveira is professor of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering of Instituto Superior Técnico, the President of the institute, and a member of its executive board. He obtained his PhD from UC Berkeley, and has mostly studied in the areas of algorithms and complexity, machine learning, bioinformatics, and digital circuit design.

Here is my interview with Dr. Oliveira about The Digital Mind:

Armen: With humans being the most influential organism in the environment of the Earth, do you view the structure of our world’s cities and events as closely matching what is most efficient for our neurons and reward pathways? Is our evolutionary biology guiding the world’s changes?

Dr. Arlindo Oliveira: Our reward pathways, and our brains, are very adaptable. That is why we are here. Apparently, they function quite well in our current environment, even though it was not the environment where they evolved. Increased life expectancy, and different environments, are making some of our features less well adapted but no so much that the current world structure seems to be a problem to our organisms.

Armen: In your discussion about computing efforts that solve problems in a narrow field not being thought of by society to be “intelligent” in the way that humans are, Google’s search system was in one of these categories. Is it a good idea for people to start viewing current computer programs and services as more intelligent than they are, because they do a job without any distraction or delay?

Dr. Arlindo Oliveira: In fact, they are not very intelligent, because they work in a narrow field. We do not view a calculator as intelligent, even though it performs additions and multiplications much better than any human. In the same way, we do not view Google as intelligent. However, as systems evolve, it may happen that we start to view these systems as more intelligent, perhaps even half-human in some respects. I do not know if that is a good idea but, if we stick to the idea that only humans are intelligent and have emotions, we will end up making other animals (or systems) less than they could be. In the end, it may represent cruelty towards animals or systems.

Armen: The OpenWorm project looks to be a brute-force way of creating a virtual C. elegans, by using data from numerous slices of the worm brain. BAC-to-BAC sequencing also looks to be brute force, in that a genome is broken apart into pieces and then mapped back together. Are brute-force techniques usually better to solve problems on the first go, or is it algorithms that are the typical way that a completed result is gained?

Dr. Arlindo Oliveira: Brute-force methods are usually the first that come to mind. In some cases, you need to use brute-force to understand a system, if it cannot be decomposed into its parts. Hopefully, smarter methods will be developed in the future, so that we will be able to understand complex systems from first principles.

Armen: Will it require a threatening effort by a machine or program, which tricks a person or group of people, before it is viewed as intelligent on the level of people? Is being out-maneuvered the sign of the switch in intelligence dominance?

Dr. Arlindo Oliveira: Hard to tell, but I think not. As time passes, we will get used to smarter and smarter systems interacting with us. Personal assistants and smart vehicles will help us recognize, slowly, that non-human systems can be rather intelligent.

Armen: You mentioned that digital persons could have to emulate the world at 1/100th of real-time, based on computing speed limitations, or could one day emulate things at 100x real-time speed. Is it possible that we have people on the planet who already experience this sort of sped-up or slowed-down processing of reality?

Dr. Arlindo Oliveira: I do not think so. Biological brains have a specific built in speed that does not vary much from person to person. You will need an entirely different computational support to observe this sort of effect.

Thanks to Dr. Oliveira for taking part, and to MIT Press for a review copy of this work. You can find his book The Digital Mind: How Science is Redefining Humanity on the MIT Press website, or check out his blog called “Digital Minds“.

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