Technology 6 min read

Edgy Explains: What is Virtual Intelligence?

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The brain is the most used organ in our body. But, it is also the most mysterious.

We know that our “collective intelligence” evolved with time. However, we don’t know precisely how cognition came to be.

As we create artificial intelligence, being the “smartest one in the room” comes with a huge responsibility. We continue to debate implications.

Now, we’re using our intelligence to decipher our own intelligence. This metacognitive way helps us to understand consciousness, enabling us to replicate ourselves in AI.

If scientists could grow functional brains in a vat, they would. They would probably do it if only to prove that this is possible.

With today’s technology, we can’t create artificial organic brains — yet.

However, it does allow us to create Virtual Intelligence (VI). But beyond just creating a VI, how do we know it is true intelligence or just a “fake”?

What is Virtual Intelligence?

Optimized to perform some specific tasks, a VI is a program designed to assist the user within a defined framework.

VI technology is in virtual assistants, chatbots, GPS navigation software, interactive mapping like Google Maps, wearable activity trackers, lab virtual assistants, and the list goes on.

VI systems could appear to be smart based on their interaction with the user. But they aren’t.

They’re well-coded programs designed to work within the controlled environment they’re created for. The solutions and responses they generate aren’t spontaneous.

VI “calculate” responses based on a set of predetermined factors.

Today’s smart speakers aren’t that intelligent, although these digital assistants can learn from their daily interactions with the user to improve their performance.

VI neural networks can learn on their own and get smarter, but any boost in their intelligence wouldn’t go beyond the original design description.

But this self-learning ability makes VI theoretically able to get out of hand and go rogue. Like AI, which could take on a life of its own, dangerously deviating from what its human creators have planned initially.

And that brings us to the next point.

VI vs. AI

Virtual intelligence is not to be confused with artificial intelligence.

Thanks to smart programming, VI can mimic human intelligence to a certain degree, within predetermined boundaries. AI, on the other hand, should demonstrate enough intelligence to make decisions on its own and suggest new possibilities.

But while AI’s self-learning abilities are well documented by now, these systems still need human intervention to get through the learning curve. Today’s “Supervised AI” is similar to VI in that it operates within a controlled environment and with a set of predetermined factors.

In other words, while they might be conceptually different, AI is now at about the same stage as VI.

In a way, AI is VI let loose!

We can find illustrations of both AI and VI in the classic sci-fi film trilogy The Matrix.

A form of VI is Agent Smith, the main antagonist in the series. This includes other programs within the Matrix, such as “Exiles” or rogue programs like the Oracle and the Twins, which are strong VI.

On the other hand, the Sentinels are a form of AI. These tentacled machines, nicknamed “squiddy” by the humans, operate outside the Matrix. Marauding Sentinels are smart and independent enough to hunt for the last surviving humans in the ruined real world.

Pseudo-VI: For Lack of True Virtual Intelligence

Replicating human-level intelligence in AI and VI systems still looks like a long way off.

Take this AI system that can tell your mood just by looking at the images you’re seeing. That’s on a par with human social intelligence that allows us to feel compassion and empathy.

But what this neural network is doing doesn’t stem from “real” intelligence.

The system couldn’t care less about the content of photos per se. It doesn’t even understand what’s going on. All it does is taking sort of “educated guesses.”

To gauge the emotional impact of a picture, this AI trained on thousands of annotated photos and a finite set of emotion categories.

True AI, or Super AI, are terms describing hypothetical AI systems able to perform with a level of flexibility at least equal to humans’. Back to the example above. When this system can annotate photos and categorize them with no supervision, it can qualify for being artificial general intelligence.

All digital voice assistants do is use a heavily-scripted skillset to answer the user’s vocal commands.

You have to trigger their intelligence (OK Google, Hey Siri!) and set the stage for their virtual world. After the wake-up call, the question or the launch phrase should invoke a specific skill, to prompt a relevant response.

To carry over a conversation as humans do, it would take from VI agents a lot more than just natural language processing and text-to-speech capabilities.

Let’s take a sophisticated VI system. Based in Germany, Zalando is a leading European e-commerce platform specializing in fashion and lifestyle.

To provide a personalized user experience to its customers, Zalando launched what it calls the Algorithmic Fashion Companion (AFC).

This AI-powered virtual style assistant offers customers outfit recommendations in real-time based on the customer’s previous purchases or products in their wish list. To generate outfit recommendations, the system builds on an “anchor” product, analyzing hundreds of thousands of outfits in the database.

Still, human stylists won’t find themselves out of a job anytime soon because of VI stylists taking over their duties. For now, Zalando stylists have to look over the algorithm’s shoulder all the time, to make sure it adheres to current fashion trends.

VI programs have the potential to reach human-level flexibility within their predetermined environment, long before general AI does. Because they operate within the confines of a controlled environment, VI systems can use their self-learning ability more efficiently.

The smaller the “playground,” the more time and energy VI can dedicate to become smarter sooner.

Read More: Here’s why True AI Won’t Come From Deep Learning

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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