Looking for Rosie

william bernsteinTech entrepreneur Max Bennett is too young to have grown up on The Jetsons, a 1960s futuristic cartoon series based on the more popular stone-age Flintstones (both, in turn, cartoon adaptations of the 1950s The Honeymooners). But Jetsons reruns, which featured smart watches, cell phones, and video calls, made an impression on the budding tech entrepreneur.

One gadget in particular caught Bennett’s attention with its twenty-first century absence: Rosie, an autonomous robot human enough to help with babysitting, homework, and cooking. Moreover, Rosie possessed charm, emotional intelligence, and a sharp sense of humor. Why, Bennett wondered, do even today’s most impressive AI tools fall short of Rosie’s human-like chops, stumbling over seemingly easy intellectual tasks or loading a dishwasher?

Bennett reasoned that just as early aeronautical inventors sought inspiration from birds’ flight mechanisms, surely AI scientists can gain insight by studying the human brain, the result of which is A Brief History of Intelligence.

Spoiler alert: Bennett fails. Just as the flight characteristics of modern flying machines have little in common with those of birds, so too will the mechanisms of successful artificial intelligence not resemble those of our three pounds of gelatinous brain tissue, with its nearly hundred billion neurons and hundred trillion connections, and whose underlying electronics in no way resemble those of silicon-based semiconductors.

If that were not enough, Bennett has little formal training in the biological or neurosciences. Why, then read his book? Because the author is a world-class autodidact whose abilities have attracted the notice of luminaries such as renown neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux and the late Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Because his intellectual syntheses have been published in high-level peer-reviewed venues, and because the book sits at, or at least near, the apex of the how-we-got-here genre of human evolution narratives, on a par with Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success. His expositions of basic neuroanatomy and neurophysiology were crisp and on-target enough to induce PTSD flashbacks from this reviewer’s first year in medical school.