Why Common Sense Isn't So Common - THINKERS Notebook

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Why Common Sense Isn't So Common

Do you watch 60 Minutes?

If so, then you've probably seen this story about the robotics company Boston Dynamics and the super-freaky robots they are developing.

You may have also seen this story about driverless trucks, which are already hurtling down highways.

And just this Thursday, Elon Musk laid out Tesla's latest plans to advance its use of artificial intelligence as the company continues to pursue fully self-driving cars.

Stories like these will just keep coming faster and faster as advancements in AI, machine learning, blockchain, quantum computing, AR/VR, nanotechnology, and more increase in speed and converge together.

It's enough to make anyone wonder what the role of living, breathing humans is actually going to be moving forward. 

Perhaps it's not so uncertain five or ten years into the future. But 50 years? 100? 200?

Are we destined to be subservient to our robot overlords? Or do we have a runway as long as the conceivable time horizon to work in concert with these new technologies to create a better, more efficient society?

I don't know the answer to that. No one does. 

But I do think it's fair to say that while emerging technologies will rapidly replace plenty of tasks that humans do, it's going to be a long, long time before technology replaces humans. 

The primary reason? We have common sense, but the robots don't.

And it may be a long, long time before they get it:

Modern AI is designed to tackle highly specific problems, in contrast to common sense, which is vague and can't be defined by a set of rules. Even the latest models make absurd errors at times, suggesting that something fundamental is missing in the AI's world model.

This is why the best way to insulate yourself against an uncertain and rapidly changing future is to lean into doing and valuing the stuff that humans do that best.

  • We reason.
  • We build relationships.
  • We imagine.
  • We cooperate.
  • We empathize.
  • We plan.
  • We even have a "naive sense of physics."

This is what makes us human, and humanity is still the major driving force on this planet (for better and worse.)

So take some time to sit down with your pen and paper. Record your ideas. Share them. Work together with someone to make them a reality.

Do something or create something that helps your fellow humans, because you care ... and because you understand what it's like to be human in ways that no robot can replicate (at least not yet).

It's easy to get discouraged by the technological changes occurring all around us. Fear and doubt can seep in. What will my role be moving forward?

But remember that we -- humans -- are the ones spurring these changes with the amazing power of our minds and ambitions. And we -- humans -- will have an integral role to play for as far out into the future as anyone can see, because common sense, human sense, still matters. 

In this week's THINKERS Roundup, you will find three articles about why human common sense is so special ... and why AI and machine learning remain nowhere close to replicating it.

Reading these articles should help you understand yourself better, and be a reminder of just how much influence you still have, and will have, in our evermore technology dominated world.

What we take for granted is actually some of the most advanced intelligence on Earth. 

"'Despite the recent AI successes, common sense — which is trivially easy for people — is remarkably difficult for AI,' Oren Etzioni, the CEO of AI2, said in the press release. 'No AI system currently deployed can reliably answer a broad range of simple questions, such as, ‘If I put my socks in a drawer, will they still be in there tomorrow?’ or ‘How can you tell if a milk carton is full?'”

Read: It’s Really Hard to Give AI “Common Sense” (Futurism)


Our ability to build mental models quickly sets us apart

"'We humans are not just pattern recognizers,' Dileep George, a computer scientist who cofounded Vicarious, tells me. 'We’re also building models about the things we see. And these are causal models—we understand about cause and effect.'

"Humans engage in reasoning, making logi­cal inferences about the world around us; we have a store of common-sense knowledge that helps us figure out new situations. When we see a game of Breakout that’s a little different from the one we just played, we realize it’s likely to have mostly the same rules and goals. The neural net, on the other hand, hadn’t understood anything about Breakout. All it could do was follow the pattern. When the pattern changed, it was helpless."

Read: How to Teach Artificial Intelligence Some Common Sense (Wired)

Our common sense is broad and complex

"Despite being both universal and essential to how humans understand the world around them and learn, common sense has defied a single precise definition. G. K. Chesterton, an English philosopher and theologian, famously wrote at the turn of the 20th century that 'common sense is a wild thing, savage, and beyond rules.' Modern definitions today agree that, at minimum, it is a natural, rather than formally taught, human ability that allows people to navigate daily life.

"Common sense is unusually broad and includes not only social abilities, like managing expectations and reasoning about other people's emotions, but also a naive sense of physics, such as knowing that a heavy rock cannot be safely placed on a flimsy plastic table. Naive, because people know such things despite not consciously working through physics equations.

"Common sense also includes background knowledge of abstract notions, such as time, space and events. This knowledge allows people to plan, estimate and organize without having to be too exact."

Read: Why is it so hard to give AI common sense? (The Big Think)

Quote of the week

"Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes."  

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson