The brave new world is no longer some Aldous Huxley flight of fancy or even fantasy. It’s here. And it’s with us now. It’s called Artificial Intelligence and it’s spawning a flourishing new, and what its advocates hope, will be a massively, profitable industry. Those involved in its development say Ai is nothing more than a benign computer program that does human quality analysis. In other words, it is designed to replace the human element in many tiring, dangerous or time-consuming jobs. Companies like IBM, Google and Apple are spending huge sums of money developing Ai. They say it will be used to manufacture very specific programs designed to improve our society.
Nevertheless, there is widespread fear and distrust of Ai. Who can forget the talking red light called HAL 9000 in 2001 A Space Odyssey. HAL, short for Heuristically programed Algorithmic computer. HAL became a living, not quite breathing personification of evil. A computer, who could talk and was capable of independent, rational thought and ultimately a threat to the human race. So is that what Ai really is? Its supporters say Ai is not alive and never will be. And while it might be capable of performing tasks that a human being would do, it has no genuine creativity, emotions, ambitions or desires other than what is programed into it or what it detects from the environment. Unlike science fiction, or what’s made into movies, Ai has no desire to mate, reproduce or have a large family of little Ai’s running around causing havoc. But in a limited context, Ai can think like us and set tasks for itself. But just like any other computer program or technology, its creators decide its role in society. And we are told those creators have no intention of using it to enslave humanity. They point to the fact that Artificially intelligent computer programs, operate as specialists. There is a network of Ai sub programs each of them individually handling tasks like computer vision, language, machine learning and robotic movement. So Ai is not a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ or even an ‘it’ but a ‘they.’
Supporters of Ai do acknowledge and concede that, like all other computer programs, Artificial Intelligence is ultimately controlled by human beings. It can be designed as a war machine, creating weapons that carry a nuclear or biological payload capable of wiping out the human race. But, they say, that is nothing new. We’ve been able to do that in the past without the need of Ai. In any case it’s not the fault of science. We human beings are to blame. We shouldn’t fear Ai but we should fear the people who might want to misuse it.
I don’t know about you but I don’t find the words and thoughts of Ai supporters particularly comforting or reassuring. And, as it turns out I’m not alone. Two eminent thinkers, Stephen Hawking, a world renowned Astrophysicist and Elon Musk, the guy behind electric car manufacturer, Tesla Motors, PayPal and rocket manufacturer, Space X. Both of these prominent individuals believe Ai is a doomsday prophecy. And while they are not talking about robotic armies rising up to take over the world, they talk of a cataclysmic event called Singularity. Hawking and Musk say ‘singularity’ could only be decades away and what will happen is that the network of world computers and Ai will have a kind of explosion of machine intelligence. By then, most of the world’s food distribution, banking and other vital systems will all be conducted through that network. So the explosion will cause all of the systems to malfunction and that will bring the world to its knees. Now you might be ready to dismiss this as something fanciful. Just as a reminder, this is not a couple of crackpot scientists talking. These two guys are highly intelligent men who the world takes very seriously. In fact, in an interview with the BBC, Hawking went further. He said the development of full Artificial Intelligence would spell the end of the human race. He called for all research into Ai to be aborted immediately, which is kind of ironic coming from someone who relies on Artificial Intelligence to communicate.
Hawking suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). For decades he has been scrolling a cursor through the alphabet, laboriously building words so that he can communicate through twitching his cheek. He was asked to express his thoughts on a recent revamp of his computer-assisted speech system by the computer company, Intel, and machine-learning software company, Swiftkey. Hawking is working with Intel to integrate new features such as predictive text with his existing suite of sensors to help him “speak” through a voice synthesiser. The astrophysicist has embraced a wide range of technologies in his quest to communicate and research.
But it was the ability of the software to “learn” and “predict” his preference in words that completely spooked him. He says while such primitive forms of artificial intelligence have proven to be very useful, he fears the consequences of creating something smarter than a human being. It could take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, would be superseded because they couldn’t compete.
Elon Musk thinks exactly the same way and his language is even more colourful than Hawking. Musk says ‘summoning the demon’ of self-learning, which is what he calls artificial intelligence, would ‘potentially be more dangerous’ than nuclear weapons.
“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence, Musk said. “If I were to guess what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that … with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. (but it) didn’t work out.”
Ai definitely has a lot of people talking. It has caused the formation of ethics panels and UN investigations, university reviews and consumer protection reports. They are saying it is a potential threat but not a clear and present danger.
Supporters of Artificial Intelligence are adamant it will benefit mankind but thinking machines are already rapidly displacing humans in the workforce: Sleepless, never tiring, performing repetitive but complex tasks in an indefatigable manner. If you are in business and don’t think beyond the size of your wallet, you’d have to be asking yourself where is the downside?