Stephen Hawking recently was commenting on the subject of artificial intelligence and made a startling statement “it could be the greatest thing ever in humanity, but also the last”. Considering that Stephen Hawking is considered by many to be the smartest person on the planet, not to mention he resided in the same chair at Cambridge University that Sir Isaac Newton once sat, we probably should at least pay him the courtesy of listening and discussing what he has to say on the subject. We are entering a period where the concept of A.I. is not far out fantasy , no longer the realm of film and fiction. Breakthroughs are being made at breath-taking speeds. I would not suggest it will be a reality in the next 5 years, though we are seeing technology accelerate with faster and more often. Technology breakthroughs are occurring that are changing how we work and play. We are already seeing the concept of robotics entering the workforce. The robots today are still very process oriented, but we are seeing robots that can gather information and make decisions based on that information. A case in point would be the Rumba robotic vacuum cleaner by iRobot. Every house is different in its layout, yet eth Rumba adjuts to those differences. As things move forward frightening prognosis begin to surface about humanities future. Evan Tesla Motor’s billionaire founder Elon Musk has chimed in on the subject stating it could be a potential threat to humanity. Going so far as to say,”We are summoning the Demon”. It is worth discussing, in fact it would be dangerous not to. As Dante said, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who did nothing during a time of moral crisis”. To be silent on AI would be to reserve one’s place with Lucifer.
There are mainstream companies like Google, Twitter, Amazon and Facebook who are leading the way in this category, perhaps not directly but indirectly. If you look at basic search, so much of what you are searching is made available before you have even finished typing what your search request is going to be. They are harnessing the data that we provide and creating complex algorithms to help meet our immediate needs and maximize our time while maybe shoving us a little in the direction marketers would like us to go. Another company is Amazon as it looks to what today is simple robotics technology to automate the warehouse. But they are thinking much broader. They want search to be optimized for the individual so that it can help decide for you. These examples to some may not seem relevant, but what is happening in the internet is a baby step towards the grand design if A.I.. Fundamentally as AI develops a large part will be about taking large sets of data, analyzing and coming to some form of judgement. Today that data is being driven by the internet and the aforementioned companies are leading the way in collecting that data. Tomorrow that data gathered will create actionable outcomes that will be carried out by intelligent machines, not humans.
John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, coined the phrase, “Technological Unemployment” back in the thirties. Realizing even then as we get more efficient in manufacturing with automation we are taking away jobs. Today we are entering a new realm of “technological unemployment”. With A.I. we can envision certain industries being reduced. One article even noted, we may not need lawyers. How can that be anything but good? But to date the role of robotics and perceived A.I. has been reserved for low skill labor, many jobs in manufacturing. The blue-collar world. What we can see moving forward is a world where the creation of these new intelligent devices will start replacing jobs in the white-collar world. Keep in mind all that information made available online will be available to these new breed of machines as they will all be connected devices, connected to the internet, to the cloud. This will be a completely new phenom, one that has not been widely discussed, let alone prepared for.
One of the key points Mr Hawking’s makes is about control. It can be nice in a world where someone or some group can play god with robotic gadgets. Make them kind, make them useful. However it is a difficult task if not impossible to put limits on technological advancement. We want to push forward as fast as we can making major breakthroughs, but as is often the case we make these breakthroughs without understanding the consequences. Ultimately when you are talking about artificial intelligence you are discussing the possibility of creating something that is capable of reason. That can act on its own. And probably most importantly can make its own decisions. That ability to look at some situation or some one and based on the information it possesses decide its fate. It would go beyond hand to robotic hand combat, but in usual Hawking’s fashion he has a sense of humor about that scenario as well. Recently he was on John Oliver’s show, Oliver asked, “Why would I not want to fight a robot” and in Hawking’s deadpan fashion, “you would lose”. But that is simply the physical aspect of a robot. What will the reasoning component of the robot decide?
A part of A.I. is creating intelligence and eventually perfecting the human mind. I am not sure the consequences of that is fully understand, if it were to be perfected what we would really be giving these synthetic humans would be the right of self-determination. The very right to judge. Time and time again in film we see the scenario of judgement placed on mankind. Actually it is usually a James Cameron film. It seems that in the end it never rules in the human race’s favor. I would like to believe we are better than that. However given what we are given in our media, we seem hell-bent of a diet of crime, violence, death and destruction. Elon Musk in a recent quote spoke of how A.I. if used to get rid of Spam, may decide the easiest path is to ge rid of those who create it, humans. You can see the danger here could be a simple mistake in a line of code or as we may refer to it, “a bug”.
For those who saw the Spielberg movie “A.I.” a central theme was what if you create something and give it the ability to learn and feel. To care. Can we envision a robot with a soul? That is something rarely discussed. It would be a handy feature to have. If a robot with AI had to make a decision on the human race based on the facts alone, it may make a very quick decision. However if it was capable of emotions it may have sympathy. It may even rationalize that most humans are actually kind and caring. A much nobler achievement. That is the beauty of science and technology, we are challenged to push boundaries to push limits. But in trying to recreate humans are we replacing humans? Our souls, our spirituality are what make us human, it is what makes us unique.
Finally there is the morality question. To create and determine life. Do we have the right? Will what we create have the right? What will AI decide? It begins to sound like James Cameron’s “Terminator”. However in our lust for competitive advantage, increased revenues and profits, an opportunity to dominate an industry, the questions of morality of the human cost may never be asked. It is within that discussion that we can see a way forward. I believe science hates the discussion as morality seems to be more of a spiritual discussion, but ultimately it is the vast plain where the two must meet to determine their ultimate fate. That is what separates us, the eternal conflict of our existence, humanity.
The famed computer scientist, John McCarthy, who coined the term Artificial Intelligence defines it as, “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines”. All the focus is on the word intelligent, the other words are disciplines but intelligence is a very human word. The latter part, “machines” is very cold and uninspiring. Machines are thought to be without feeling, without emotion. They are exact, and when working properly, never-failing. They are everything we are not. Elon Musk also pointed out recently that things are advancing far quicker than most people realize. I will add that Newt Gingrich (yes that one) said once, “In the first 25 yrs of the 21st Century we will pass everything done in the 20th Century “. As we watch we can see that is all but too prophetic. I will add the next ten years following the first 25, will technological advancement will crush everything done in the first 25. Beyond that? No need to worry, we will not be around to witness it.
Good Night and Good Luck
Hans Henrik Hoffmann November 3, 2014