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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In the quest to build AI that goes beyond today's single-purpose machines, scientists are developing new tools to help AI remember the right things — and forget the rest.

Why it matters: Getting that balance right is the difference between a machine that can trade stocks like a pro but can't make head or tail of a crossword puzzle, and one that learns all that plus a variety of other skills, and continually improves them — an important step toward human-like intelligence.

"AI is entirely about memory and forgetting," says Dileep George, founder of the AI company Vicarious.

  • A computer that remembers too little won't be able to do anything that requires connecting past experiences to new ones — like understanding a pronoun in a sentence, even if the person it refers to was named just one sentence before. These memory lapses are known as "catastrophic forgetting."
  • But one that remembers too much loses the ability to see the big picture. This is called overfitting: focusing entirely on the particulars of past experiences at the cost of the ability to extract general concepts from them.
  • "A big part of learning is knowing what to learn," says David Cox, director of the MIT–IBM Watson AI Lab. "You want to be able to forget things that are irrelevant." This holds for humans and machines both.

Another effect of catastrophic forgetting is that a machine learning a new task can lose the ability to do an old one — like a language learner forgetting their native tongue.

  • To solve this, some researchers are adding in memory modules that can set aside learned patterns, so that they don't get overwritten by new information.
  • Others, like George, are experimenting with turning specific tasks into computer programs that are walled off from others and can be combined to perform more complex jobs.

These help with AI's forgetting problem — but they're not how human brains work, says Blake Richards, a neuroscientist and AI researcher at the University of Toronto.

  • What our brains actually do isn't completely clear, Richards says. It's likely that memories are stored all together — but that patterns are kept separate from each other within the tangle, warding off the overwriting problem.
  • Being able to connect memories with one another may be at the root of our ability to imagine and plan — two essential qualities that AI still lacks.

A trick humans do during sleep may be key to moving AI closer to the way we learn, says Cox. At rest, we relive recent memories, and in doing so reinforce neural pathways that help us remember them.

  • Machines can mimic this with a process called "experience replay," which weaves in memories of previously learned tasks alongside new lessons.
  • This helps them remember the old and the new — and because the memories are not kept separate, a computer could use parts of one to help learn the other, like a typist learning to play piano.

What's next: Perfecting memory could unlock AI "that can actually make insightful predictions and imagine what's going to happen in the future," Richards says. That's a crucial building block toward common sense, long a holy grail for AI researchers.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated 30 mins ago - World

Biden sends envoy as Israel and Hamas escalate toward war

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip leave their neighborhood on Wednesday following an explosion. Photo: li Jadallah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tel Aviv — With Israel and Hamas now engaged in their most destructive fight in seven years, the Biden administration is dispatching a State Department official to join the de-escalation efforts.

The latest: The Israeli air force attacked a meeting of senior Hamas military leaders on Wednesday in Gaza and reported it had killed the Gaza City Brigade commander and the heads of Hamas’ cyber arm and weapons research and development department, along with at least three other senior officials.

Former Pentagon chief blames media "hysteria" for lack of troops on Jan. 6

Former acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller told the House Oversight Committee Wednesday that he limited the deployment of National Guard troops at the Capitol ahead of Jan. 6 in part due to media "hysteria" about "the possibility of a military coup."

Why it matters: William Walker, commanding general of the D.C. National Guard, previously testified that a three-hour delay in approval for National Guard assistance during the Jan. 6 Capitol attack was exacerbated by "unusual" restrictions on his authorities by Pentagon leadership.

1 hour ago - World

Negotiations to oust Netanyahu stall amid Jerusalem crisis

Netanyahu holds a cabinet meeting this week. Photo: Amit Shabi/POOL/AFP via Getty

Efforts to form a new Israeli government and oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have come to an almost complete halt amid the escalation with Hamas.

Why it matters: Opposition leader Yair Lapid is six days into a 28-day mandate, and seemed on track to strike a coalition deal with Naftali Bennett, a right-wing kingmaker. But the latest crisis could make those efforts nearly impossible.

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