Imagine a world of technological bliss. A vaguely Brave New World type of society balanced purely on consumerism as citizens as encouraged to always use the latest technology, to value the latest innovations, and to trust a world of calculations and machinery. Artificially intelligent cars reduce road deaths, life itself is longer due to improvements with health care, robots function as a cheap and time-effective source of labor (eliminating the need for human workers), and anything a person desires can be downloaded off the internet and printed into existence. Need an original piece of artwork? There’s a code for that. Hungry for dinner? Get the code. Need a new house? Look up the code and print it—literally anything is possible.
As various forms of the media continue to undergo digitalization, we are increasingly led to question whether the Internet itself might become the ultimate non-reality. Recall the popular philosophical query from George Berkeley: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Imagine, then, what this sentence might translate to more than 250 years after Berkeley’s death, now that the technological singularity is a very real force that has the capability of affecting almost every aspect of human life: “If a code for a 3D printed ham-and-cheese sandwich is free to download and print off the internet, and no internet signal is present to access it, did the possibility of a meal ever exist?
The example of the sandwich might seem a little overdramatized, but imagine the future, technology-based world described from before; and then imagine waking up one morning only to find that that sketchy Wi-Fi signal never came back—that the digital coding inhabiting the air waves has been disrupted, compromised, or otherwise made dysfunctional. Suddenly the digital sandwich becomes more of an issue; society has long-since disposed of organic, packaged, perishable food in favor of a nutrition-laden set of cartridges that help compose the 3D food printer in the living room. How can a person eat without the technology?
Similarly, there is no way to access other people through Internet-reliant devices, whether this might be a smartphone, a watch, a pair of glasses, or a genetically modified circulatory system enhanced to access the web. There is no way to start the smartcar, which relies on a signal to assess traffic and drive a customer safely from destination to destination. Suddenly, there is no way to look up a cure, to build a house, or to get that sandwich at a fast-food chain, since the internet-controlled robot workers who serve customers are experiencing network connectivity problems.
As beneficial as technological innovation is proving to be, similar doubts about the future of man have been voiced concerning what seems to be the impending singularity and what this will mean for the human race as an as-of-yet unchallenged dominant species. With the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence, are humans moving towards a technological utopia … or a dystopia, in which humans will wake one morning to find that they no longer possess anything of inherent tangible value? Even Stephen Hawking has his doubts about the technological shift currently taking place. He has voiced to BBC News that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” enforcing claims he’s made in the past that artificial intelligence “would be the biggest event in human history, [but] unfortunately, it might also be the last” (Griffiths).
Similar warnings have emerged from James Barrat, author of the 2013 book “Our Final Invention,” an exploration on the capability of artificial intelligence to threaten the human race. Barrat says that “once AI has attained [human-level intelligence], scientists argue, it will have survival drives much like our own. We may be forced to compete with a rival more cunning, more powerful, and more alien than we can imagine.” He goes on to explain how an AI’s survival instinct might drive it toward morally unacceptable behavior, and adds that even AI makers “who have nurtured and coddled the ASI since it was only cockroach smart … might be wondering if it is too late to program “friendliness” into their brainy invention.” What if the AI machine acts violently without consulting humans first? And perhaps more disturbingly, Barrat asks, “what if ASI never tells the truth?” (Barrat).
What exactly are the destructive capabilities of the ASI? Part of the problem may be a result of poor human planning in preparation to programming; after all, the human language is so subtle that “machines could deliberately wipe out the human race, or do so by accidently misinterpreting an instruction,” says Dr. Stuart Armstrong, speaking at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University during the summer of 2015. He further warns that in addition to making humans redundant at work, machines might become so intelligent that they will “skip communicating with humans to take control of the economy and financial markets, transport, healthcare, and more” (Griffiths).
Writer Nick Bilton of the New York Times and author of the book “Superintelligence” presents a clearer image of what doomsday might be like. He says the problem will start with glitches in the system, that perhaps “a driverless car freezes on the highway because a software update goes awry.” But the glitches will progress. He elaborates, “Imagine how a medical robot, originally programmed to rid cancer, could conclude that the best way to obliterate cancer is to exterminate humans who are genetically prone to the disease” (Bilton). This would, indeed, be counter-productive to the human cause; but consider that such intelligent technology in the hands of a malicious person could be infinitely worse. Lecturer Bonnie Docherty of Harvard University fears a point during which machines are allowed to kill people on the battlefield, and, likening AI technology to nuclear weapons, warns, “If this type of technology is not stopped now, it will lead to an arms race” (Bilton).
Although some of these concerns seem far from likely to happen anytime soon, it is apparent that artificial intelligence is already impacting the the job market. Jobs involving assembly-line work, financial reporting, anesthesia administration, medical diagnosis, surgical procedures, legal cases, and financial advisement are already in the process of automation, with human intervention taking the role of simply reviewing the machine’s work. Associated Press has already applied such technology, and it uses automation to generate sports reports claiming that automation “can weave the data into a compelling narrative that on a skill level an experienced writer can do” (Sherman). A further report by the Verge indicates that the Associated Press “now publishes 3,000 stories on companies’ earnings per quarter that are written and published by [this] computer system by Automated Insights.” Human editors reviewed each automated story when the program began, but within three months the stories were fully automated and published without human intervention (Bolluyt).
Astonishing predictions by University of Oxford researchers do not lessen the anxiety that people are starting to feel concerning mechanical competition in the workforce. According to the University of Oxford and also Deloitte of the UK, “10 million unskilled jobs could be taken over by robots,” and furthermore, predictions by University of Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Micheal Osborne estimate that “47 percent of total U.S. jobs could be automated and taken over by computers by 2033” (Sherman). An example of one such computer might be the self-driving car, which could displace three million truck drivers in the U.S. alone (Bolluyt).
It might stand to reason that a highly creative profession is less likely to face the same competitive hardship with artificial intelligence. Ironically, “highly creative professions,”—like those that employ artists, computer programmers, musicians and architects, to name a few—are not always economically lucrative, but are projected to better escape the wave of artificial intelligence-based job displacement. According to a report sent to Fortune from U.K. non-profit Nesta, “21% of US employment requires people to be “highly creative.” Of them, 86% (18% of the total workforce) are at low or no risk from automation.” Fortune writer Erik Sherman phrases this quite simply, “A University of Oxford study finds that there are some things that a robot won’t be able to do. Unfortunately, these gigs don’t pay all that well” (Sherman).
It would be a mistake to assume that machines are incapable or artistic pursuits, however. The art of painting, often associated with “emotional reasoning and unclear meanings,” actually has many links to different forms of mathematics and can be generated into equations that have produced “over a dozen separate kinds of algorithmically-based art.” Most notably, the art creating program AARON, initially conceived in 1973 by Professor Harold Cohen of the University of California San Diego, has become so advanced that it can “paint still life and portraits of human figures without photos or other human input as reference,” painted not with pixels, “but with real paint on an actual canvas.” AARON has been taught to mix paint and to distinguish element relationships; it is given the liberty to “paint whatever it wants within the confines of its knowledge, driven only by its limited version of an imagination,” often producing work that looks childish or abstract in varying stages (Moss).
Additionally, computers are learning how to compose music through the use of computational algorithms. The goal is to get “computer-generated, algorithmically-composed music to work in real time” and for it “[to learn] a musician’s style and effectively [improvise] an accompaniment.” Professor David Cope of the University of California Santa Cruz is a specialized algorithmic composer who has spoken enthusiastically about the time and production benefits that AI has brought to songwriting, saying, “We could do amazing things if we’d just give up a little bit of our ego and attempt to not pit us against our own creations—our own computers—but embrace the two of us together and in one way or another continue to grow” (Moss).
As detrimental as many of these scenarios might seem to the state of human employment and well-being, there is much possibility for positive innovation from artificially intelligent mechanisms, ranging from polluted skies to intelligent cars, and from massive infrastructure to small kids’ toys.
IBM researchers in China are developing a prototype system that can “generate high-resolution air quality forecasts, 72 hours ahead of time” and that can offer “decision support on emission reduction actions” in an effort to address pollution, the public health issue that is killing more than a million people a year (Knight).
AI is also curbing pollution through the automotive companies, which are starting to “use recyclable materials that have a low rate of fuel emission to build 3D cars. [There are few other automobiles] with a lower carbon print than a 3D printed one.” This technology can create an entire car in 44 hours, feasibly allowing future customers to order a car online, and have it shipped to them within two days (Bekiaris). These cars may also become much safer, built with capabilities to “[wake] up dozing drivers [and to prepare] the braking or steering systems in anticipation of a sharp turn” in response to data received from GPS signals, vehicular data, and camera images meant to “identify the positions of drivers’ heads as they [steer] their vehicles” (Harris).
As amazing as this new mode of production seems, cars are nowhere near the limit when it comes to 3D printing technology, and much more time and labor may be saved with the use of 3D printers to reproduce digitally conceptualized architecture. Already, a Dutch startup company is currently building the world’s first 3D-printed bridge using steel-heating robotic arms that seems to draw with molten metal “outside of the box” into thin-air. Robots will begin on either side of a canal in Amsterdam and will build a self-supporting structure as they proceed towards the middle of the bridge. This project is due for completion by next year (Armbrecht).
A smaller, but no less remarkable product of the AI revolution is the creation of interactive, self-responsible children’s toys, like the football playing robot dinosaur produced by toy firm WowWee in 2015. MiPosaur, the AI dinosaur, comes with an “evolving intelligence and personality” allowing it to “alter its mood depending on the interaction.” It also interacts with its environment through motion sensors and can play with an accompanying ball using infrared technology that maps the owner’s house; additionally, with future beacons plugged into the walls, products will “actually put themselves away, back into the closet” (Cuthbertson). Children will never have to clean their rooms again.
As rapidly as artificial intelligence is advancing today, it is difficult to put a time on the technological singularity or to understand, in any clear terms, an age of intelligence that will revolutionize the world in ways far above human comprehension. As with every other technological innovation in human history, there will be triumphs, there will be errors, and there will be the everlasting dream of what may yet be … and if there is anything that discerns a human intelligence from an artificial one, it is the human’s tendency to dream.
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