"Medical diagnosis is about making finer and finer distinctions," he said. "Online marketing is about making finer and finer distinctions. If you think about it, much of the technology humans interact with is about putting you in a particular bucket."
McAfee agreed with Cohen about the potential of AI for medical diagnosis. "I have a very good primary care physician, but there's no possible way he can stay on top of all the relevant medical knowledge he would have to read," he said. "Human computers are amazing, but they have lots of glitches. They have all kinds of flaws and biases."
AI machines are still a ways off from equalling the processing power of the human brain, but that's largely a problem with hardware resources, said Peter Bock, an emeritus professor of engineering at George Washington University. Scientists should be able to build an AI device that matches the processing power of a human brain within 12 years, he predicted.
That AI device would then take several years to learn the information it needs to function like a human brain, just as a child needs years to develop, he said.
One audience member asked the AI experts if the technology will ever replace computer programmers.
If scientists are eventually able to build an AI machine that has the processing power of a human brain, that machine "could become a programmer," Bock said. "She might become an actress. Why not? They can be anything they want."
DARPA now has a project that focuses on using software to assemble code, by pulling from code that someone has already written, Cohen said. Many programmers today focus more on assembling code from resources such as StackOverflow.com, instead of re-creating code that already exists, he said, and DARPA has automated that process.
Humans still have to tell the assembling program what they want the final code to do, he noted.
At some point, an AI program may be able to write code, but that's still years off, McAfee said. In order to deny that could never happen, "you'd have to believe there's something ineffable about the human brain, that there's some kind of spark of a soul or something that could never be understood," he said. "I don't believe that."
There are things humans can still do, however, that have "proved really, really resistant to understanding, let alone automation," McAfee added. "I think of programming as long-form creative work. I've never seen a long-form creative output from a machine that is anything except a joke or mishmash."
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