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Great Ideas Can Come From the “Quirks” of Human Intelligence

Artificial intelligence, lacking those quirks, doesn’t generate the great ideas

Herbert L. Roitblat, Principal Data Scientist at Mimecast and author of Algorithms Are Not Enough: Creating General Artificial Intelligence (MIT Press, 2020) talks about something that humans do and machine intelligence doesn’t do — flashes of insight:

Insight problems generally cannot be solved by a step-by-step procedure, like an algorithm, or if they can, the process is extremely tedious. Instead, insight problems are characterized by a kind of restructuring of the solver’s approach to the problem.

Herbert L. Roitblat, “AI Is No Match for the Quirks of Human Intelligence” at The Reader/MIT Press (October 4, 2021)

Eureka! moments of discovery — famous in popular culture — are often the resolution of an insight problem. Roitblat offers, as an example, a problem solved by ancient mathematician and inventor Archimedes (287–212/11 BC) for Hieron, king of his native city, Syracuse in Italy. Heron had had a gold wreath crown made for him but suspected that the agreed weight of gold had been diluted by silver. But how to prove that?

When Archimedes took on the problem, there was no algorithm or any clear path, just some basic information:

He knew that silver was less dense than gold, so if he could measure the volume of the crown along with its weight, he could determine whether it was pure gold or a mixture. The crown shape, however, was irregular, and Archimedes found it difficult to measure its volume accurately using conventional methods.

According to Vitruvius, who wrote about the episode many years later, Archimedes realized, during a trip to the Roman baths, that the more his body sank into the water, the more water was displaced. He used this insight to recognize that he could use the volume of water displaced as a measure of the volume of the crown. Once he achieved that insight, finding out that the crown had, in fact, been adulterated was easy.

Herbert L. Roitblat, “AI Is No Match for the Quirks of Human Intelligence” at The Reader/MIT Press (October 4, 2021)
This 16th century illustration (artist unknown) shows Archimedes in the bath, suddenly realizing something…
The problematic crown is pictured at bottom right. (Public Domain)

Archimedes is alleged to have run naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!” (“I have found it!”) but that’s probably legend. What’s not legend is the use of the principle of displacement that he had hit on.

And remember, he was not following any clear path to solving the problem. He was simply looking intently for possible solutions in the activities of the world around him. We do that all the time. Every now and then someone stumbles onto a great insight. Roitblat notes,

Relatively little is known about how we solve insight problems. These problems are typically challenging to study in the laboratory with much depth, because it is difficult to ask people to describe the steps that they go through to solve them. We all know that people do not always behave in the systematic ways suggested by logical thought. These deviations are not glitches or bugs in human thought but essential features that enable human intelligence.

Herbert L. Roitblat, “AI Is No Match for the Quirks of Human Intelligence” at The Reader/MIT Press (October 4, 2021)

Insight is definitely an essential feature that enable human intelligence but it might not be at all easy to automate. That’s one reason Roitblat is not expecting the “robo-apocalypse” any time soon.

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Great Ideas Can Come From the “Quirks” of Human Intelligence