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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 50 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: U.S. ahead of pace on vaccines.
  2. Health: Lessons for trapping the next pandemic.
  3. Tech: "Fludemic" model accurately maps COVID hotspotsVirtual doctor's visits and digital health tools take off.
  4. Politics: Harris breaks tie as Senate proceeds with lengthy debate on COVID relief bill — Republican governor of West Virginia says there's no plan to lift mask mandate.
  5. World: Canada vaccine panel recommends 4 months between doses — In AstraZeneca spat, EU fights hard for a vaccine its hardly using.
Dave Lawler, author of World
52 mins ago - World

In AstraZeneca spat, EU fights hard for a vaccine it's hardly using

Macron, Merkel and European Council President Charles Michel (R) at a summit in October. Photo: Yves Herman/Pool/AFP via Getty

Italy on Thursday blocked the export of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses to Australia, becoming the first EU country to exercise an export ban due to a vaccine shortfall in the bloc.

Why it matters: The controversial step exposes multiple major challenges to distributing vaccines — even among the world’s richest countries.

Dave Lawler, author of World
1 hour ago - World

Global freedom continues steady decline: report

The global erosion of democracy has continued for a 15th consecutive year, according to an annual report from Freedom House.

Zoom in: The report calls particular attention to India, which slipped from “free” to “partly free” due to the government's “scapegoating of Muslims” and “crackdown on critics.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi is, according to the report, “driving India itself toward authoritarianism.”

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