Monday, July 27, 2009

Our Robot Overlords

Pretty much every time we see an article about some new robotic advancement, my co-bloggers and I e-mail each other in jest about the coming apocalypse and our future robot overlords. The hyperbole and humor is almost certainly the reaction to decades of science fiction portrayals of robots as usurpers and masters of men, juxtaposed against the salient reality that during most of that time, robots have been no more capable of threatening mankind than our kitchen appliances. Nonetheless, we have reached a point where we can-sort of-imagine what it might mean for computers and machines to become autonomous, and begin assuming roles that are presently beyond them (via Boing Boing):

Impressed and alarmed by advances in artificial intelligence, a group of computer scientists is debating whether there should be limits on research that might lead to loss of human control over computer-based systems that carry a growing share of society’s workload, from waging war to chatting with customers on the phone.

Their concern is that further advances could create profound social disruptions and even have dangerous consequences.

As examples, the scientists pointed to a number of technologies as diverse as experimental medical systems that interact with patients to simulate empathy, and computer worms and viruses that defy extermination and could thus be said to have reached a “cockroach” stage of machine intelligence.

While the computer scientists agreed that we are a long way from Hal, the computer that took over the spaceship in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” they said there was legitimate concern that technological progress would transform the work force by destroying a widening range of jobs, as well as force humans to learn to live with machines that increasingly copy human behaviors.

The ultimate artificial intelligent/robot nightmare is the apocalyptic scenarios depicted in movies like "Terminator" or "The Matrix", which assume that upon acquiring enough power artificial intelligences will act as somewhat more ruthless humans might, and obliterate all competition for authority over the planet. In fact, artificial intelligences are much more likely to permeate our lives in more subtle fashion, with results that are considerably more gradual, but only somewhat less dramatic. Artificial intelligences capable of far more than our present-day machines (thought perhaps not anything approaching sentience) are likely in the near future. Given human ingenuity, they will be utilized in ways that we cannot yet foresee. What will they do for us? How will we interact with them? What devices shall they complement, or replace? I think those of us who are around long enough will be surprised by the answers to those questions, but that's the only prediction I feel safe making.

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