‘We are on the wrong track with artificial intelligence’

According to Freeman Dyson, ‘the man who replaced Einstein at Princeton’, computer scientists should use analogue rather than digital machines to imitate the human brain

Prof Freeman Dyson: ‘Science is what we did for fun in our own spare time rather than being taught’

Prof Freeman Dyson: ‘Science is what we did for fun in our own spare time rather than being taught’

Thu, May 15, 2014, 01:00

Computer-based artificial intelligence has promised much but delivered relatively little given all the research that has gone into it. The reason for that lack of progress probably has less to do with computers than with our lack of understanding about the human brain.

It is likely that the brain is an analogue system and computer scientists are trying to imitate its workings using digital machines, says Prof Freeman Dyson, an emeritus professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey.

Dyson, one of the world’s greatest living mathematicians, is in Dublin on Monday to deliver a lecture, Are Brains Analogue or Digital? The talk has more to do with natural intelligence and how the brain works, he says.

“The failure of artificial intelligence indicates we are on the wrong track. You are trying to imitate an analogue device with a digital device,” he says. “In the end I am saying if we could understand the brain perhaps we could imitate it successfully.”

Dyson is sometimes referred to as the scientist who took over from Albert Einstein at Princeton, although he is modest about his various mathematical accomplishments.

He was born in December 1923 and was a mathematical prodigy as a child. He moved to the US in 1947 and had an immediate impact by translating three complex problems in physics and combining them into a single elegant mathematical solution. He managed to unify quantum theory and electrodynamic theory in a single stroke.

“I didn’t invent anything new. I only took these existing theories and translated the maths so that others could use [them]. I was tidying up the details, but it turned out to be extremely useful and became the standard language of particle physics,” he says.

He attributes his interest in science to the fact that his school didn’t teach it.

“It was not taught in schools; they taught Latin and Greek,” he says. “Science is what we did for fun in our own spare time rather than being taught, and that was the key to it. We had a little science club that the kids ran themselves and taught each other. It was a far more effective way of educating us than sitting in class,” says Dyson.

Ironically, when the UK education system began to teach science in the 1930s, the number of Nobel prizes awarded to its scientists began to fall, he says. “The best training for a scientist is to learn Latin and Greek and then do science for fun. That was true in my case.”

Solving problems
Mathematics was on the curriculum, and it was a subject in which he excelled. Although for much of his career at Princeton he was involved in solving mathematical problems in physics, he views himself as a mathematician. “Really I am a mathematician, but I am an applied mathematician. I like to solve problems in other fields.”

Solving problems in other fields provided him with an interesting and varied career. He worked for the US military on the Orion project for several years, a secret effort to develop a spacecraft powered by nuclear explosions. He worked for General Atomics at Los Alamos in the US, trying to develop other peaceful uses for nuclear energy, work that led him to help design and patent a small nuclear reactor used in support of medical diagnostics.

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