When you return to school after summer break, it may feel like you forgot everything you learned the year before. But if you learned like an AI system does, you actually would have — as you sat down for your first day of class, your brain would take that as a cue to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.
AI systems’ tendency to forget the things it previously learned upon taking on new information is called catastrophic forgetting.
That’s a big problem. See, cutting-edge algorithms learn, so to speak, after analyzing countless examples of what they’re expected to do. A facial recognition AI system, for instance, will analyze thousands of photos of people’s faces, likely photos that have been manually annotated, so that it will be able to detect a face when it pops up in a video feed. But because these AI systems don’t actually comprehend the underlying logic of what they do, teaching them to do anything else, even if it’s pretty similar — like, say, recognizing specific emotions — means training them all over again from scratch. Once an algorithm is trained, it’s done, we can’t update it anymore.
For years, scientists have been trying to figure out how to work around the problem. If they succeed, AI systems would be able to learn from a new set of training data without overwriting most of what they already knew in the process. Basically, if the robots should someday rise up, our new overlords would be able to conquer all life on Earth and chew bubblegum at the same time.
But still, catastrophic forgetting is one of the major hurdles preventing scientists from building an artificial general intelligence (AGI) — AI that’s all-encompassing, empathetic, and imaginative, like the ones we see in TV and movies.
In fact, a number of AI experts who attended The Joint Multi-Conference on Human-Level Artificial Intelligence last week in Prague said, in private interviews with Futurism or during panels and presentations, that the problem of catastrophic forgetting is one of the top reasons they don’t expect to see AGI or human-level AI anytime soon.