Artificial Intelligence is Teaching Us New, Surprising Things about the Human Mind

April 1, 2023

The world has been learning an awful lot about artificial intelligence lately, thanks to the arrival of eerily human-like chatbots.

Less noticed, but just as important: Researchers are learning a great deal about us – with the help of AI. 

AI is helping scientists decode how neurons in our brains communicate, and explore the nature of cognition. This new research could one day lead to humans connecting with computers merely by thinking–as opposed to typing or voice commands. But there is a long way to go before such visions become reality. 

I say tomato, you say pangolin

headshot of Celeste KiddCeleste Kidd, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, was surprised by what she discovered when she tried to examine the range of opinions people have about certain politicians, including Barack Obama and Donald Trump. 

Her research was intended to explore the widening divergence of how we conceive of subjects to which we attach moral judgements – such as politicians. Previous work has shown that morally-fraught concepts are the ones people perceive in the most polarized ways.

To establish a baseline for her experiment, she began by asking thousands of study participants about their associations with common nouns, in this case animals.

What she discovered was that even for common animals – including chickens, whales and salmon – people’s notions of their characteristics are all over the map. Are whales majestic? You’d be surprised who disagrees. Are penguins heavy? Opinions vary. By quizzing people on many such associations, Dr. Kidd was able to amass a pool of data that clusters people according to which of these associations they agree on. Using this method, she found that  people can be grouped into between 10 and 30 different clusters, depending on their perception of an animal.

Dr. Kidd and her team concluded that people tend not to see eye to eyeabout even the most basic characteristics of common objects. We also overestimate how many people see things as we do. In a world in which it feels like people are increasingly talking past one another, the root of this phenomenon may be the fact that even for citizens of a single country speaking a common language, words simply don’t mean the same thing to different people.

That might not seem like a very profound observation, but what Dr. Kidd’s research suggests is the degree to which that’s true may be much greater than psychologists previously thought.

Arriving at this insight required the application of a tool of mathematics that makes many kinds of AI possible – known as a “clustering model”.

The most important feature of AI which enables new kinds of research, says Dr. Kidd, is the same that makes possible AI chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPTGoogle’s Bard, and Microsoft’s Bing chat: It’s the capacity of modern computer systems to process a lot more data than in the past. It “opens up a lot of possibilities for new insights, from biology to medicine to cognitive science,” she adds.

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The Wall Street Journal