Is Artificial Intelligence A Threat To Mankind? Stephen Hawking Thinks It Is.

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?

Be Careful What You Google

This would be disturbing if it wasn’t so farcical.

Be careful what you Google. That was the clear message after a New York couple received an unwelcome visit from counterterrorism authorities.

Blogger and journalist Michele Catalano was Googling pressure cookers. Yep. Pressure cookers. She wanted a pressure cooker to (wait for it) cook quinoa. For those who might not know what that it is, Quinoa is a South American grain you can purchase in a health food shop. It was a harmless Google search.

Next, her husband was using the same computer to search for backpacks. He needed a backpack. Don’t we all from time to time. Again it was a harmless Google search.

The couple’s 20 year old son was also on the computer. After reading about the Boston bombings he was clicking on links about home-made bombs. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was harmless curiosity.

But unfortunately there is no such thing as harmless anything any more. Not in the days of terrorism and counter terrorism. And especially not if it leads to authorities concluding that someone might be trying to manufacture a home made bomb.

Now apparently unbeknown to the Catalanos someone, somewhere in authority was putting all of this Google searching together and came to the conclusion that this family represented enough of a threat to warrant a visit.

Around 9 am one morning the family answered a knock on the front door. We are talking black ops. Six men in three black SUVs pulled up and surrounded the house.

Like I said they knocked. This time. As opposed to kicking the door down. Michele’s husband let them in. They searched and after not a long time they left.. Clearly convinced that the couple’s home was one of 99 percent of cases where there was no threat.

And that was that. Except it wasn’t. Because a lot of people are now asking how does the Government know what people are Googling?

It has already been pointed out elsewhere, that this question suddenly has great relevance given the case of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia. One of the disclosures revealed by Snowden was details of an American intelligence programme that monitors internet activity.

Michele Catalano has since learned that authorities also monitored topics her husband  looked at on his work computer.

She has no idea which counterterrorism group visited her home. They apparently did not identify themselves.

The U.S. website Atlantic Wire tried to get to the bottom of who these spooks might have been without any success. They were not the FBI or the local police.

One thing’s for sure they  were not foodies. They had no idea what Quinoa was.