Digital future unwound
For the past few months, artificial intelligence (AI) has been a much talked about topic in the worlds of both pop culture and science. Last November saw the release of Oscar-nominated and winning biopic, “The Imitation Game”, about the father of the modern computer, Alan Turing. Last month, another Hollywood film about clever robots, Chappie, hit theaters. And here in China, search engine giant Baidu founder and CEO Li Yanhong threw out a bold proposal at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Li’s vision is a project called “China Brain”, aiming to make China the world leader in developing artificial intelligence systems.
Is artificial intelligence a boon or does it spell doom for humans? In their book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both of whom hail from MIT, US, could barely hide their excitement toward the rise of machines.
According to the authors, we are entering an age of accelerated development of artificial and robotic technology. “Digital machines have escaped their narrow confines and started to demonstrate broad abilities in pattern recognition, complex communication, and other domains that used to be exclusively human,” write the authors. “We’ve recently seen great progress in natural language processing, machine learning (the ability of a computer to automatically refine its methods and improve its results as it gets more data), computer vision, simultaneous localization and mapping, and many other areas.
“We’re going to see artificial intelligence do more and more, and as this happens costs will go down, outcomes will improve, and our lives will get better.”
Bright or bleak future?
Already AI can help blind people see and deaf people hear. And wheelchairs have been invented that can be controlled by thoughts. We are going to witness more innovations and wonders made possible by AI, according to the authors.
However, not all are equally enthusiastic about AI. A February report from the Global Challenges Foundation listed AI, alongside extreme climate change, nuclear war and ecological catastrophe, as “risks that threaten human civilization”. Many pre-eminent scientists share the same concern. Stephen Hawking told the BBC last December that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
“It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” he said: “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”
Hawking’s worry echoed that of Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk, who said in last October at an MIT conference that “we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that”.
“I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish,” Musk said.
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