The Tech Story We Should All Be Thinking About: AI, CRISPR and the Future of Humanity

This post was first published on LinkedIn on January 21, 2016.

A number of hot tech stories vied for our attention in 2015 — wearables, drones, cloud, autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, space flight — but one matters more than the rest. Artificial Intelligence (AI) should command a greater share of our cognition not because of its immediate impact or short to medium term prospects, but rather because of the big-picture implications of the technology — and the very public acknowledgment of the inevitabilities of AI by major tech luminaries.

The quest to replicate general human intelligence in software code will eventually succeed, and at some point after that what will result is what Nick Bostrom calls, in his ambitious book by the same name, Superintelligence. The emergence of the first superintelligence (an intellect vastly superior to humanity’s greatest minds in general intelligence) will precipitate the end of human history as we know it. This may be a good thing or a very, very bad thing. If the human species is not exterminated by the AI (or subjugated by an ill-intentioned group controlling the AI), at that point the pace of technological and scientific advancement will accelerate along an ever steepening curve eventually reaching a point when further change in the manner of our past history will come only when an enduring and vastly advanced humanity encounters another superintelligent species in the course of expansion across the accessible universe.

Whoa.

Seriously though, how is the above statement anything more than a sci-fi fantasy?

More importantly, why should you care?

In 2011 when William Hertling published Avogadro Corp: The Singularity is Closer than it Appears (a great read, btw) the concept of a rogue AI that poses an existential threat to humanity had motive power primarily in the realms of sci-fi and hardcore academia. Not any longer. In 2015 superintelligence had its headlining moment.

In 2015 a consortium of the world’s most successful and visionary engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs — among them Elon Musk and Reid Hoffman — committed a billion dollars to this idea when they formed the not-for-profit OpenAI. This powerhouse group is far from an outlier in seeing the peril and opportunity inherent in AI. Yahoo — one of the world’s top media companies — early in 2016 announced the release of a trove of product usage data equivalent in size to 2/3 of the library of Congress (WSJ). Why? To attract AI research partners.

Here are some other reasons why you should be invested in this conversation: Siri, Cortana, Google Voice, M, Alexa, Xiaoice, Watson. In recent years, and quite rapidly, Artificial Intelligences have become household names, and these are just the ones that have names. You almost certainly come in to contact with AI on a daily basis — Google Search, Facebook Timeline, LinkedIn Pulse, Kindle Book Recommendations. All of the top players in tech have serious efforts underway on the AI front.

Interestingly, AI is not the only technology story bearing heavyweight existential implications to ripen in 2015. The commercialization of CRISPR (a catchy acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) received less notice in popular media (my own first encounter came in November 2015 in The New York Times Magazine), but is fomenting a revolution in genetic engineering that promises to place the full power of the human genome in humanity’s hands. Again, as with AI, the logical endpoint of this technology is superintelligence. Why? Because the achievement of superintelligence implies the subsequent availability of virtually limitless scientific discovery. All other innovations — including extreme longevity and viable nuclear fusion among them — of necessity follow.

Humanity has crossed the event horizon, and we are sliding inexorably towards the singularity — towards the rise of earth’s first superintelligence.

It is entirely possible that some of us will witness the nascence of the first superintelligence within our lifetimes and even more likely that our children will.

So, when you think of artificial intelligence cast your mind beyond beautiful robots, and when you ponder the possibilities of genetic engineering know that it’s not about sweeter corn.

AI and CRISPR will insinuate themselves in to your life if they haven’t already, and this not a bad thing. It is but an inevitability of humanity’s quest for knowledge, understanding and mastery over the physical world. When you are confronted by these technologies (or served by them), when they come up in conversation take an active stance, get involved and form or discover your point of view. Consider the future of humanity, and recognize our chance to shape it into something magnificent and enduring.

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