The Power of Intuition in Scientific Discovery and AI

Posted by Peter Rudin on 25. August 2023 in Essay

Intuition vs. Logic                 


According to Wikipedia, intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without recourse to conscious reasoning. Intuition provides direct access to unconscious knowledge, unconscious cognition, inner sensing and the ability to understand something instinctively. Often referred to as ‘gut feeling’, intuition tends to arise holistically and quickly without awareness of the underlying mental processing of information. According to Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman and his famous bestseller, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, intuition is the ability to automatically generate solutions without logical arguments or evidence.

A Neuro-Psychological View

Neuro-Psychologists believe that intuition relies on powers of pattern-matching performed by brain processes. The mind combs through experiences stored in our brain’s long-term memory for similar situations and leads us to immediate judgements based on these experiences. In other words,  intuition is the product of brain processes that automatically compare perceived elements of an experience with past experiences and knowledge gained by them. This process is connected to one’s awareness with considerable emotional support. Intuition – similar to first impressions – serves the brain’s need to predict and prepare for what will happen next. First impressions are rapid, holistic assessments based on subtle perceptual cues and judgment of intent to help or to harm. Intuition tends to be most useful in situations where analytical thinking alone is not enough. However, its automatic processes and rapid evaluations are subject to error, especially from biases we hold. Yet research shows that for big life decisions, such as choosing where to live or what type of job to take, people are far more convinced and satisfied when they make intuitive choices.

Intuition in Physics

In his new book ‘In a Flight of Starlings’, Nobel Prize Winner Giogio Parisi explains the power of intuition in scientific discovery. He investigates the principles of physics by observing the sophisticated flight patterns of starlings. According to Parisi, studying the movements of these birds, intuitively expands our understanding of complex systems. Intuition in physics also played a fundamental role in the discovery of quantum mechanics. Between 1900 and 1925 well known physicists such as Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg had observed phenomena which they were unable to understand. Intuitively they realised that these phenomena could be explained as more experiments were conducted. The final barrier fell at the fifth Solvay International Conference held in 1927, considered the turning point for modern physics. In contrast to classical physics, quantum theory describes phenomena which are often counterintuitive to human thought, hence a mind-change is required to follow one of the most important paradigm-shifts humanity has experienced so far. Based on this new approach to physics, researchers found that light can behave like a particle or appear in waveform at the same time which may explain the following:

Superposition: This phenomena of quantum behaviour can be illustrated with the double-slit experiment. In the basic version of this experiment, a laser beam illuminates a plate pierced by two parallel slits while the light passing through the slits is observed on a screen behind the plate. The implication is that each quantum particle appearing as light passes simultaneously through both slits and interferes with itself. This combination of ‘both paths at once’ is defined as a state of superposition.

Entanglement: This phenomena describes what happens when a pair of particles interact such that the quantum state of each particle of the pair cannot be described independently of the state of the other particle. Regardless of the distance between an entangled pair of particles, measuring the state of one particle reveals information about the other at the same instant, causing Einstein to label this peculiarity as “spooky action at a distance.”

Are We Moving  from a Knowledge- to an Intuition-Economy?

With the introduction of large language models (LMMs), excitement and fear about artificial intelligence (AI) has received enormous media-attention. On the one hand, companies and investors are pouring billions into the technology, especially since Microsoft-backed OpenAI released ChatGPT that many are calling a tipping point for AI. The application and further development towards Generative-AI will change business models and in this process, reinvent entire industries, according to a report published by PwC. On the other hand, controversy about its impact is spreading rapidly. AI pioneer Geoffrey Hinton warned that AI could pose a more urgent threat than climate change and on May 16, 2023, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman told a US Senate committee that he favours the creation of a new government licensing body for large-scale AI models. In contrast to this view, the nonprofit Center for Data Innovation addressed the growing fears in a recently published report, stating that technology and human creativity have long been intertwined, and fears about the negative impact of new innovations have been overstated in the past. For example, innovations in the music sector led to fears that record albums would make live shows redundant. But over time, this kind of panic disappeared as the public embraced the new technology and initial concerns turned out to be clearly overblown. Generative-AI which can produce complex content such as text, imagery and audio, has fostered fears that AI will destroy creativity, an asset that distinguishes humans from intelligent machines. However, the fact is that AI will place all the world’s knowledge at everyone’s fingertips. For example, an attorney will not need a team of co-lawyers to conduct research before arguing a big case before a jury if the full wealth of information regarding this case is easily accessible via an AI-assistant. With knowledge commoditised and democratised, we might enter an ‘intuition-economy’, in which human creativity will be valued more than ever. Significant innovations will happen because of  AI’s ability to streamline and accelerate the accumulation of knowledge while humans focus on unlocking previously indecipherable mysteries by applying their intuitive capacity.

The Trend Towards Intuitive AI

In a TED talk titled ‘The Incredible Inventions of Intuitive AI’, Designer and Futurist Maurice Conti  defines AI as a process of three different phases. The first phase is the passive phase. The second phase is described as the generative phase while the third phase is called the intuitive phase. In his view humans have gone through three different epochs that define the way we work. The first is the hunter-gatherer age that lasted several million years, the second is the agricultural age lasting several thousands of years and the third is the industrial age that has started two centuries ago. In his view we are about to enter the augmented age where the natural intuitive capabilities of humans are  augmented by computational systems. These computational systems help humans to build an artificial digital nervous system that connects us to the world far beyond our natural senses. In his view AI-systems are reaching a point where they have gone from working based on pure logic to learning how to apply intuition like human beings. As one example, he envisions that this intuitive phase will enable  robotic systems to augment humans in the physical world. To do so, however, robots and other AI-Machines need to incorporate human values to judge the consequences of their actions. Following this thought we enter the debate if AI-machines can have a mind. Today the answer is clearly negative, however, with technology advancing at an exponential rate, one cannot exclude the idea that this might indeed happen within a decade, especially as neuroscience makes continuous progress to explore the functionality of the human brain and its intuitive processes. 

Final Remark

Hardly a week goes by with venture-financed Start-ups announcing a revolutionary tool to advance AI beyond present boundaries. Along this frenzy of competitive activities, one should keep in mind that Big-Tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple, Meta and Amazon are only 25 to 50 years old. Within a very short time, they have amassed huge financial power and disrupted many of the established industries. We need to evaluate AI’s impact and consider guardrails on its development. The question can be  raised, however, if we are not entering a phase where an overhyped  bubble will burst similar to the dot-com crash in 1999. So far it seems impossible to stop this technology or to slow it. Yet, even the most seasoned companies, executives and VCs can get too caught up in the hype of AI-development and may well stumble in the race to establish their dominance and relevancy in a changing technological landscape.

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