A Take on Tech: "How would you like to become one with a robot?"
Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 03:05
You might be hearing, “How would you like to become one with a robot?” used as a pick-up line sometime in the next few decades. According to many scientists, technologists and “futurists,” technology is progressing towards the development of computerized intelligence, which will be more intelligent than we are. That is, the apprentice becomes the master—in theory, these machines will have no need for us to continue improving them once they are smarter than we are because they will be able to improve themselves.
Such a moment, when artificial intelligence becomes greater than that of humanity, is called “the Singularity.” In the same way that pondering, “What’s outside the universe?” is futile, trying to predict what will happen once we reach the Singularity is futile because we’re not smart enough to know what something smarter than us will do. The implications are enormous and mysterious. Computers with superhuman intelligence could find solutions to issues like poverty, disease, hunger and energy consumption. But they are just as likely to want nothing to do with humans—as one leading artificial intelligence theorist, Eliezer Yudkowsky, says, “The A.I. does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.”
That sounds intimidating—so is it real? Is the Singularity going to happen, for better or worse? Many say yes. Ray Kurzweil, who supposedly predicted the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the defeat of a human by a computer in a chess match in 1997 and the explosive growth of the Internet in the 2000s, is one of the main promoters of Singularity theory. Kurzweil cites Moore’s Law, which says that the size of processing chips halves every two years. This pattern is comparable to the broader phenomenon of technological growth, as we see computer size and costs getting smaller and smaller, with memory capacity and processing speed increasing exponentially. Moore’s Law has proven eerily accurate, which says something about the possibilities of A.I. in the medium-term future.
But developing robots that walk amongst humans in an “I, Robot”-esque fashion is just one way of reaching the Singularity. Also feasible is a method of bio-enhancement, a la the 2011 film, “Limitless.” Kurzweil and others believe that, in the coming years, we will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain, allowing us to reconstruct and improve it, leading to superhuman intelligence. Kurzweil has made other predictions which are slightly unsettling: machines having the same legal status as humans, human minds having no thinking advantages whatsoever over computer minds and an eradication of a distinction between humans and machines by the year 2099. Alternatively, microchips implanted into our brains and other body parts may augment mental processing speed and performance, effectively making us part-man, part-machine—hence the saucy pick-up line I used to open this piece.
This hypothetical moment in the future would be extremely momentous. But whether you consider it science or science-fiction, it raises interesting questions about our technological and social progression. Is technological advance for technological advancements’ sake a good thing to pursue?
For many, the idea of living in a world where humans are second-in-command to robots is undesirable, but theoretically, it will occur in our lifetime.
Here’s something to ponder while bored in class: if you uploaded your entire brain’s content—the birthdays, the heartbreaks, the dream of owning a business, the soft spot for pistachio ice cream—onto a computer, then got hit by a bus, but having earlier signed a waiver allowing all of your memories, knowledge, personality and goals to be downloaded onto another human body or even a machine, who could then go, live and walk in the world, would that new person be you?
These are the strange existential questions that become necessary to consider when faced with the unforgiving advance of technology. Are we even ready to answer them? Maybe we should first learn how to play nicely with other nations or subsist on a planet without depleting its resources, before we engineer machines that have the potential to save or destroy us.