We are on the cusp of some exciting scientific breakthroughs in the world of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).
The new technology could really benefit the human race, but, after a robot recently passed a self-awareness test, some of the world’s brilliant minds alive – such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates – have warned us it could spell the ugly demise of mankind.
So is AI a step forward for us, or could it result in the horrifically frightening prospect of The Terminator scenario playing out in real life?
What is artificial intelligence?
The term was coined by highly influential computer and cognitive scientist John McCarthy in 1955. AI is the name of the academic field concerned with creating computer software capable of intelligent behaviour. It is often described as ‘the study and design of intelligent agents’. An intelligent agent is widely defined as a system that reacts to its environment and takes actions that maximise its chances of success.
What is it used for?
AI is applied in a huge range of industries and contexts, often making our lives a lot easier. For instance, in heavy industrial or military settings, robots are utilised to complete jobs deemed too dangerous for humans. Sending in a robot to dispose of a bomb is certainly favourable to risking a life. Robots have also proven effective on production lines where the repetitive nature of the work can lead to human error.
In hospitals, AI systems are used to provide the correct medical information, order in medicines and make bed schedules. In the world of finance, they are used to organise operations, invest in stocks and manage properties. When the US government is busy spying on our communications they use an AI system which incorporates speech and text recognition, data mining, and email filtering.
Everyone recognises that infuriating voice (‘Press one for the sales team… two for customer service…’) you hear when you ring a call centre. Well that’s a robot, and many sales based companies now utilise them to follow up leads online. This new type of employee does not ‘take breaks, get frustrated, take a day off or communicate ineffectively’. Starting to get worried about your job? Maybe you should be.
Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 3, 2014
Can it be dangerous?
Last year Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, told the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):
I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful.
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, spoke about the issue during a Reddit Q&A, saying:
I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after though the intelligence could be strong enough to be a concern.
Stephen Hawking, a leading theoretical physicist, echoed Gates’ concerns, adding:
The primitive forms of artificial intelligence we already have, have proved very useful. But I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.
These systems are optimised to mimic human cognition to align with our needs and expectations. But does that mean they should have free will and actually think like us? Even if that meant they could potentially decide to act in a way at odds with the wellbeing of humanity?
Eric Horvitz, head of Microsoft’s main research lab, thinks not. In a video interview published on Microsoft’s website he said that humans ‘will not lose control of certain kinds of intelligences,’ adding: “In the end we’ll be able to get incredible benefits from machine intelligence in all realms of life, from science to education to economics to daily life.”
Maybe our concerns should be focused around how this technology could enable malicious and deliberate human misuse. Much like nuclear energy, AI is not inherently bad, but with evil intent it could spell our demise.
In conclusion, AI could be a step closer to the dystopian visions of cult science fiction films becoming a reality. However, I’m still not expecting to see a muscle-bound cyborg appear in an electrical storm and demand my clothes, boots and motorcycle. Not this year, anyway.