SURELY, and not very slowly, the robots are taking over. From the innocuous Roomba to self-driving cars and weapons that can effectively think for themselves, the long-promised and long-feared age of the artificially intelligent automaton is finally here.
Now whether this results in a utopian new world of everyday miracles or heralds the twilight of humanity science fiction has long warned us of depends on how smartly and responsibly humanity uses these advancements. And let’s face it, we don’t have a very good track record there.
Take the top secret Taranis stealth drone being developed for the British army. This war robot is being pegged as the first drone capable of flying, selecting targets and carrying out strikes without needing a human to call the shots.
Teachers, actors and even journalists aren’t safe anymore.
If you feel a twinge of dread at this prospect then know that you’re not alone; more than 16,000 artificial intelligence (AI) researchers have signed a petition to the UN calling for world leaders to urgently ban the creation of autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons. Among the petitioners are legendary physicist Stephen Hawkings and Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SPaceX, the man who has brought us self-driving cars and self-landing rockets. In short, people who really know what they’re talking about.
Hawkings first sounded the alarm on the dangers of full artificial intelligence back in 2014, and then repeated his warning last year, saying that computers can emulate human intelligence, and exceed it.
How close are we to this technological singularity? In March last year, Google’s DeepMind AI beat Lee Se-Doi, the world’s best Go player four matches to one. Go is said to be the world’s most complex board game and by virtue of this complexity is considered to be more challenging for AI to learn than chess.
An almost speechless Lee said that DeepMind had played a nearly perfect game. Now this may not seem like a big deal, but then consider that DeepMind is also learning to walk. Provided with a set of digital limbs modelled after actual human limbs, DeepMind learned to walk, run and navigate obstacles without any help from its programmers.
In a video released, you can see DeepMind’s avatar in action, sometimes failing and falling but then learning from its mistakes instantly and modifying its behaviour permanently.
Essentially, DeepMind used the exact same process by which a human child learns to interact with the world around him, except that DeepMind did in hours and days what takes us years and countless bruises to master. Now take this AI and combine it with the incredible advances being made in robotics, and you can imagine that we are creating a new type of life, with all the complexities and dilemmas that poses.
More immediately, there are job losses to consider; while blue-collar jobs have always been at risk of automation, studies say that 47 per cent of jobs in the US will be automated in the next 20 years, with similar projections for Canada and the UK.
In Southeast Asia, an estimated 137 million workers will be in danger of losing their jobs. Many white-collar jobs may also be taken by robots, including some you would not normally imagine. Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, is developing algorithms to automate management decisions like hiring and firing employees.
There are already legal bots in operation, and the US military is even using a computer-generated virtual therapist to screen for PTSD.
Teachers, actors and even journalists aren’t safe anymore as Forbes and AP are already using journo-bots to draft business and sports stories. No wonder then, that Bill Gates is calling for taxes on businesses that employ robots in order to cushion the impending economic shock.
There will be other shocks too, as some experts are predicting human-robot marriages by 2050. In fact, one Chinese engineer, tired of being unable to find a wife, went and built his own. She’s pretty basic right now, but her creator promises upgrades are on the way.
As for the impending robocalypse, Elon Musk has a solution: if you can’t beat them, become them. He proposes that humans will have to become cyborgs, a mix of man and machine in order to not become house cats for artificial intelligence.
True to form, he’s already working on a brain-computer interface called Neuralink — a neural mesh injected into the brain — which could augment humans by giving them additional memory, the ability to telepathically communicate with each other and with linked devices and also grant sensory abilities like night vision. Already, simpler forms of brain implants are being used to help paralysis victims and people suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
The future is uncertain at the best of times, but it is clear that what we are seeing is the dawn of an age unprecedented in human history. To survive it, we may have to redefine what it means to be human.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2017