Scientific Controversies
No. 20: Minds and Machines

Humans aspire to build machines that think—machines with minds. The mindless algorithms that currently control and influence so much of contemporary life are far from thinking, sentient beings. Still, there has been a tremendous amount of fear mongering of late surrounding the existential threat of an Artificial Intelligence evolving from these mindless algorithms. Prof. Gary Marcus calls the hysteria into question and suggests a path forward to a safe AI that improves our lives. Always provocative, Dr. Cathy O’Neil, reminds us that even the seemingly mindless algorithms of today are embedded with our values. And not everyone’s values are inherently for the greater good. What are the implications of an AI evolved from algorithms intended to satiate the greed of the few? She challenges mathematicians and computer scientists to acknowledge the potential for big data, algorithms, and AI to increase inequality and cause math destruction.

Our Director of Sciences, Janna Levin, invites the cognitive scientist Prof. Gary Marcus and mathematician Dr. Cathy O’Neil to ponder if machines will acquire minds and if our minds are machines. Special guests, Annie Duke, Prof. Daniel Kahneman, and Prof. Pedro Domingos, will join later in the evening.

Join us after the conversation for a book signing of Gary Marcus’ Rebooting AI: Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust and Cathy O’Neil’s National Book Award-nominated Weapons of Math Destruction. There will be stargazing with the Amateur Astronomers Association of NY in our garden.

Gary Marcus is a cognitive scientist, bestselling author, and Professor Emeritus at New York University. He is the Founder and CEO of Robust.AI, and was the Founder and CEO of the machine learning startup Geometric Intelligence, recently acquired by Uber. His research and writings focus primarily on natural and artificial intelligence. In addition to being published in numerous journals, he is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times as well as an author of five books including The Algebraic Mind and the NYT bestseller, Guitar Zero. Marcus’ new book co-authored with Ernest Davis, Rebooting AI: Building Machines We Can Trust aims to shake up the field of artificial intelligence and will be available for purchase at the event.

Cathy O’Neil is a mathematician, data scientist, and author of, a blog exploring and venting about quantitative issues. She has a PhD in mathematics from Harvard University, taught at Barnard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has worked as a hedge fund analyst and has experience designing algorithms for advertisement. She is the author of several data science books including Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. O’Neil hopes to someday have a better answer to the question, “what can a non-academic mathematician do that makes the world a better place?”

Janna Levin is Chair and Director of Science at Pioneer Works and Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Barnard College of Columbia University.

This project is supported by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.