Why our brain is the most intelligent machine of all

1 February 2019



The idea of intelligent machines - otherwise known as artificial intelligence (AI) - is an increasingly hot topic. They contain the promise of a technology that could improve medical treatments and make life more convenient, but also hold the spectre of making jobs redundant and invading our privacy.  

But what exactly is AI, and how has this technology that underpins everything from deep brain stimulation to photo filters been inspired by our brain?

QBI Director Professor Pankaj Sah said AI was becoming an intrinsic part of our lives, but to truly understand the technology and how it may evolve in the future, we need to understand our own brains.

“AI is everywhere – each time you use a photo filter, have junk mail filtered from your inbox or get a traffic update on your phone, AI is at work. The brain is the most powerful machine currently in existence, so it’s little wonder it is a central source of inspiration for AI and robotic technology. With unparalleled efficiency and the ability to learn and adapt, it has formed the blueprint of much research in the fields of AI and robotics.

“But technology is merging with neuroscience in ways that will have a huge impact on society."

Researchers from QBI have thus lent their expertise to a free magazine, The Brain: Intelligent Machines, that provides a grounding in the neuroscience behind AI and examines the future implications - both positive and negative - of this evolving technology.

Inspired by the brain

The brain is more powerful than any intelligent machine in existence. With around 100 billion cells, it is more complex than just about anything we have ever studied. But while our brain has had hundreds of millions of years to evolve, with the first vertebrates with complex brains appearing around 500 million years ago, modern AI research only began in the 1950s. 

The field has fluctuated in funding and interest from government and the public, with a recent surge based on today's enormous data sets and the power and speed of 21st-century computers. These huge amounts of data are necessary for AI to learn, unlike our brains, which can learn from a single experience. Some think that for AI to develop more, we first must understand more about how our own brains function.

Read more on why we have a brain, a brief history of the brain, what is artificial intelligence, a history of AI and how the brain inspires AI.

Will intelligent robots enslave us all?

This is the central question surrounding AI, at least when it comes to Hollywood. Anyone who has watched Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Westworld has surely wondered what would happen if we allowed technology development to go too far, creating machines that were smarter and hardier than ourselves. 

Luckily, our robotic future doesn't look quite that bleak. We are still a long way from truly intelligent robots and while there are some tasks at which AI beats humans, such as analysing huge amounts of data quickly, many things that a human would regard as simple, such as walking into an unfamiliar kitchen and making a cup of coffee, are beyond the current limits of the technology.

In fact, our robotic future could be more helpful than harmful, with computers helping us understand more about how our brain functions, and brain-machine technologies such as deep-brain stimulation holding the promise of new treatments for diseases and disorders.

Read more on our robotic future, brains on a chip, robots that learn, merging brains and machines and deep brain stimulation

Why bees still have AI beat

Though mercenary robots may not be in our future, AI will make a huge impact on our lives in the years to come. With such a change will inevitably come ethical challenges around identity and responsibility, privacy, morality and bias. Machines may be viewed as cold and logical, but they are programmed by humans, with all the inherent biases we carry. Although these are not insurmountable problems, with the first step being awareness, they are ones we must consider.

For now, AI holds great promise, but even the seemingly simple bee has it beat on some fronts. Bees only live for a month, and in their first week, they learn to forage for food, recognise the flowers they need to visit and navigate back home, tasks that machines could not hope to master in such a short time.

Read more in The Brain: Intelligent Machines.