No Superheroes Without Villains — Taming Artificial Intelligence

There are some things that mankind has always struggled with. In spite of the constant pursuit of understanding, some situations cannot help but strike fear into our hearts.

Nothing scares man more than the unknown. Death has pushed him to look for religion in an attempt to figure out what lies beyond the void, while the world’s greatest minds have given it their all to understand the stars and to unravel the mysteries surrounding our existence. And just like any other significant step in the history of man, the inevitable arrival of artificial intelligence has pushed the same great minds to meditate on our very own existence.

The industrial revolution pushed man to rethink labor and the last fifty years have upended our lives with the introduction of computers. Needless to say, these inventions, far from dooming humanity, have pushed mankind to lead better lives, and artificial intelligence could follow.

On paper, the prospect of artificial general intelligence is simple to comprehend, yet complex to design. The notion of a machine that may not just do what it is instructed, but also act on its own accord is an exciting prospect. That is, artificial intelligence has the potential to go beyond the scope of computing and improve our everyday lives down to the simplest of actions, but only if it is tackled right.

The advent of sentient beings constructed of nuts and bolts might still be some way off, but there is no denying that cognition could soon become reality in the realm of machines. Nonetheless, as artificial intelligence gains traction, coverage from the media and the scientific community has largely focused on the dangers of the impending technology, rather than on the prospects.

“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.” — Elon Musk

Recent debate on artificial intelligence has left no stone unturned, traversing ​religion, philosophy and science, among others. Still, some of the brightest, scientific minds do not necessarily agree with some of these notions. In fact, whereas artificial intelligence takes important strides towards fruition, some of the men and women who should, arguably, be rubbing their hands in glee at the recent technological advances are instead speaking words of worry.

Few represent the world of science, entrepreneurship and innovation as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates. The trio has brought science to our homes, bridged the gap between man and technology, and between the present and the future. Perhaps surprisingly, the former two are also part of a comprehensive list of scientists, ranging from video game programmers to renowned researchers, who signed an open letter proclaiming the dangers of giving robots an integral part of biological beings — intelligence.

“First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that, though, the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern.” — Bill Gates

Pop culture too has painted a particularly dystopian picture of the birth of artificial intelligence and, in general, anything robotic. Her (2013) imagines artificial intelligence in a similar way to what Bill Gates had to say about the technology. In reality, however, it emphasizes that artificial intelligence is forcibly new and diverse from us — it’s different. Unknown. And our fear from anything that is, however insignificantly, unknown to us might be just the problem.

A number of issues inevitably intertwine with the impending dawn of artificial intelligence. In fact, the field of artificial intelligence is comparable to the possible existence of alien life — it is as unpredictable as it is exciting. Philosophically, there’s no telling what a sentient being might think like or what it prioritizes. Are morals merely a thing that we humans obsess about, or is morality something that can be taught to machines? And if yes, to what end?

The layman may not be ready to answer these questions just yet, and thus, the voices of the world’s prominent scientists can be the leaders amid uncertainty. It is thus worrying that the same men who are trying to get us to Mars, and who made computers an invaluable tool in everyday life, are skeptical about the state of artificial intelligence. However, artificial intelligence stands the chance of being more than just another machine.

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” — Stephen Hawking

Ever since the industrial revolution, technological advances in the field of mechanics and computing have largely followed a mantra of making our working lives easier. Military technology kickstarted the idea that was soon to become the modern general computer in the ENIAC computational machine, and similarly, other technology stemmed like roses amid thorns in the unlikeliest of places.

Undeniably, technology has made our lives easier, yet technological aspects have largely been influenced by the needs of the various industries that needed progress the most, such as the recently-unveiled SAFFiR firefighting robot prototype, commissioned by the US Navy. Today, however, the emergence of artificial intelligence could signal the way for technology that helps us in our everyday lives.

Although mobile technology is still same way off obtaining the artificial general intelligence status, that is, artificial intelligence that can also learn in a similar fashion to humans, digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Voice and Microsoft Cortana are a sneak peek into the future. Alongside such technology, artificial intelligence could usher in an era in which the priority is not working better, but living in a more wholesome manner.

The idea of a virtual assistant that is capable of anticipating man’s needs and react to them is an example of the second step for artificial intelligence following the notion of a narrow-minded machine that can only do a predefined and specialized set of actions. What comes later, however, could well fulfill Stephen Hawking’s prophecy and enslave, or perhaps even annihilate, humanity.

“…but what makes me me is my ability to grow through my experiences. Basically, in every moment I’m evolving, just like you.” — Her (2013)

The idea of a super intelligent species of machines whose intellect surpasses that of mankind is an intimidating thought following millennia in which man has been the smartest species alive. Ironically, man’s own creation could spell out his downfall, yet it could also open new horizons in which man tames machines, as he did with animals, and work hand in hand to build a better future. Will things go South? Probably.

We do not have to look farther than recent episodes to realize that even the most fundamental of technologies have been used to wreak havoc, with the Sony attacks and other similar leaks being a prime example. In short, man has always exploited and abused conveniences for his own purposes, and that’s unlikely to change.

The question surrounding artificial general intelligence should not look anymore for the answer as to whether it will be used for egotistical purposes. The answer lies in other innovations that have been misused time and time again — villains will rise. Instead, we should seek to answer whether we want to be the superheroes who will slay them.

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