Artificial intelligence: not if but when

As our computer technology improves we get ever closer to creating an artificial intelligence with near godlike power

Image: PIX1861

Image: PIX1861

Despite our increasing willingness to incorporate the newest technologies into our lives, the idea of a digital mind still seems a far flung futuristic dream to some, and a science fiction trope to others. Yet AI is tangibly close, and will trigger a paradigm shift like no other.

It’s easy to dismiss forays into artificial intelligence as glorified chess-playing machines and well-designed chatbots, but developments are coming undeniably hard and exponentially fast. IBM’s Watson supercomputer is diagnosing and treating cancer patients more efficiently and more accurately than the most experienced medical professionals. In 2011, Watson famously beat previous winners of the US quiz show Jeopardy!, interpreting the questions from the host and answering in natural language. Baker & Hostetler, a US law firm, has announced that they are employing IBM’s AI Ross to handle their bankruptcy practice, a department currently made up of almost 50 human lawyers. Google, Facebook and Microsoft have all developed software capable of recognising voices, faces, and movements to a superhuman degree of accuracy. These aren’t just party tricks either. With ever increasing types of skills, AI will be able to do your job faster than you, better than you, and with fewer complaints, sick days and holidays than you. Artificial intelligence is expanding its repertoire – it won’t be long before we make the jump from our ‘weak’ AI to ‘strong: from specialised to general.

Our advances themselves are clear to see, but why is the future closer than ever? In reality, it always has been. Futurist Ray Kurzweil coined the ‘Law of Accelerating Returns’: a visible, consistent trend that can be tracked from as far as the discovery of fire to the adoption of the internet. In essence, when computational power, or complexity, or any measurable value of technological progress is plotted against time on a graph, we don’t see a linear relationship: a steady increase. Instead, we see a clear exponential curve – that is, the more time passes, the shorter the time between advances, and the greater the technological leap from each advance to the next. A narrow view looks at the zoomed in portion of the graph representing the last few years and sees a straight line, but misses the ever-increasing curve of human advancement.

Artificial intelligence will continue to embody this very real trend. Whether we stumble across it or work hard to birth it, the invention of true AI will upheave our current technology and continue the exponential march towards loftier heights.

Just as the wheel revolutionised transport, the printing press information, and the transistor electricity, artificial intelligence will be able to drag our primate minds into the next step in our evolution. Once AI comes about, it will have the knowledge, power and vast amounts of data to improve itself independently. Through recursive self improvement, an AI system could bring about its own paradigm shifts and accelerating returns. By all accounts, this kind of system could learn and grow so quickly, that soon after its creation, its discoveries, abilities and knowledge would appear to us almost godlike.

With this in mind, there is a very real possibility that for the first time in human history, we won’t be the most intelligent beings on the planet. How do we treat species we see as beneath us? Are they pets to keep around for enjoyment, or just animals that we largely avoid unless they get in our way? How will a superintelligent god see its comparatively stupid ancestors? Will we integrate with this new technology and push the frontiers of our humanity further than they have ever gone before? Will our creation look to us with gratitude, or will the human race’s inferiority leave us totally irrelevant in this  brave new world? AI and humanity together could be an interesting mix, but could just as easily be the end of our reign as carriers of civilisation.

Artificial intelligence is coming. When it does, there won’t be a slow progression into an AI world – instead a technological revolution that could cause us to question what intelligence really is, and more importantly, what it is to be human.

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