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Opinion

January 1, 2018

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The rise of the machines

The future is both scary and fascinating. If it wasn’t, its many depictions would never have caught our fancy – in early mystical traditions, in works of fiction, in Hollywood and beyond.

Those who grew up watching the cartoon series The Jetsons will remember a world – albeit fictional – of personal flying vehicles, robot housemaids, videophones, robot vacuums, entertainment watches, tanning beds, flat screen TVs and tablets. Something about this world was exciting, tickling the inner child in us – the part of us eager to part ways with the business-as-usual hum of quotidian reality while seeking immersion in alternative, weirder worlds.

But, in truth, we are almost already living in a Jetsons-type world. You’re probably reading this article on your smart device. Imagine going back a few decades and pulling up a news article on a wireless device before a random crowd of people. Think of the looks on their faces, as you magically (over-the-air) retrieve information of choice from an invisible data-hosting ‘cloud’.

And this is only a fraction of what technology allows us to do today. Strap on a HoloLens and allow yourself to interface with augmented reality, where 3D pop-up images impressively overlay base reality itself. Better yet, get inside a VR headset and transport yourself into virtual worlds for full 3D immersion. Add real-time haptic feedback and more advanced graphics and the simulated reality becomes nearly indistinguishable from base reality. Then there is holoportation, which has already been trialed successfully, that will allow your physical avatar to appear anywhere in space as a hologram. Imagine, your hologram wandering a few centuries ago through a random countryside, accosting unsuspecting folks along the way. Those rustic dwellers could be forgiven for falling to the ground, genuflecting before your avatar in full worship upon this eerie confrontation.

And right around the corner, we have autonomous self-driving cars – cars that require no human agency at the wheels. The technology is already there – Tesla and Google having already trialed it. It’s now a matter of state regulations coming together given that this new technology is guaranteed to upset many established industries. More interestingly, engineers and designers now have to think of corner cases in morality to equip these autonomous cars with appropriate decision-making abilities on the road. Let’s assume that the car is about to collide with a crowd of children, will it save them at the risk of the passenger inside? Value judgements of this sort, which are often left to the grey spaces of thought experiments in philosophy classes, will suddenly require consensus and codification.

But worldviews will clash more radically once artificial intelligence (AI) becomes fully emergent. This is one domain that doesn’t survive any attempt at reaching a common consensus. This is not surprising, considering what we have at stake is the civilisation-integrity of our species as we know it. Sounds far-fetched? Not quite. Just think about this: intelligence is the function of information-processing in a physical system. There is nothing in our brain tissue that renders intelligence a unique property of the brain or a property that cannot be instantiated in silicon systems. And we know computers today can perform operations a million times faster than the human brain.

The moment we transcend narrow AI (functional intelligence) to general intelligence, these ‘intelligent’ machines will achieve thousand years of human level intellectual work in a matter of days, if not hours. That’s just simple math. How long before these machines build their own AI, which recursively builds its own AI and so on? At this point, we will confront what Nick Bostrom refers to as an ‘intelligence explosion’. AI-powered technology will likely get away from us real fast. And if we stand in relation to this super-intelligence in the same way bacterial microbes stand in relation to us, then what use could we possibly serve it? Or will our species be merely rendered surplus to requirements? Whatever the case, this doesn’t appear to be the image of a humanoid Eden.

Elon Musk, on the other hand, views the emergence of AI as a synergistic man-machine future. The idea is that neuronal interfaces between brain and machine will turn us into cyborgs and lavish us with machine level capabilities. Technologist Ray Kurzweil takes a step further and envisions a state of immortality, with our consciousness uploaded on the cloud. A smart man no doubt, Kurzweil seems overly ambitious in claiming that the singularity is very near, probably within our lifetimes. Consciousness, after all, remains a hard problem in philosophy.

We don’t quite understand why we have it and how it emerged so instantiating it in the cloud remains an elusive proposition. But the fact that achieving singularity is at all a prospect on the event horizon of our species should give us pause. It also begs an interesting question: once AI achieves general intelligence, could it be said to be conscious? This will depend, in part, on how we define consciousness. Suffice it to say that the emergence of general intelligence might deliver some valuable insights into deeper philosophical questions around consciousness and the existence (if any) of the soul, etc.

But even if this AI were to evolve as some benign genie in our hands, there is still the implication that it will be the ultimate labour-saving device – it will eat away all our jobs. This is already beginning to happen across industries. Intelligent machine-learning algorithms are automating manual tasks. What’s more, predictive analytics and AI will ultimately replace higher cognitive tasks as well. If today AI can beat the smartest chess player in the world, who is to say it won’t beat your smartest CEO at corporate strategy many times over?

And if AI does end up swallowing up human labor as we know it, how do we deal with a planet with hundred-percent unemployment? Some suggest a universal basic income as a global panacea. But let’s think about this: every newborn in this world of universal income will come as an additional tax on society. Unless the AI genie manages to create an infinite abundance out of scarcity, even the slightest population increase will carry strong disincentives. Is this the world we want to live in? But as Elon Musk would say, we’ll have colonised planetary systems by then.

The possibilities are clearly limitless. What we can be assured of is that as technology advances, it will steadily encroach upon our established ways of operating in this world, until it wholly disfigures our known landscape. And this is the danger that we must confront. Imagine a note arriving to us from extraterrestrial aliens, with the following message: We will arrive in a hundred years. Be ready.

Who is to say runaway super-intelligence will be any different from an alien. Are we, then, ready for it? The world of The Jetsons seemed merry enough. However, reality might be less mirthful.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

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