The Pros and Perils of Artificial Intelligence

The new movie “Ex Machina” might be this summer’s sleeper hit, but it’s more than a spare sci-fi re-telling of “Frankenstein.” It’s a possible preview of real-life coming attractions.

Our first encounters with artificial intelligence robots likely won’t come in the form of a seductive android named Ava. Instead, we may come upon a square, talking greeter at the hardware store who can help find that plumbing thingy in aisle 18. In Japan and Europe, they are experimenting with robot caregivers — especially for the elderly and infirm — who can monitor vital signs or help lift and move patients.

“Robots are merely mobile machines,” explains ZEITGUIDE friend Dale Kutnick, who is senior vice president at Gartner. “Robots are rapidly becoming mobile, electro-mechanical abstractions of computers and becoming increasingly intelligent and reactive/adaptable to their environment with less human intervention.”

Meanwhile, artificial intelligence has already become completely separate from any crude physical “body.” Watson, the IBM-designed cognitive supercomputer (which famously won “Jeopardy!” in 2011), exists on cloud servers, where it is quickly becoming a master at medical diagnostics and creating new food combinations for recipes.

But not all see the future of artificially intelligent robots as so healthy and tasty.

Super-visionary Elon Musk is one. “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that,” Musk told the audience at an MIT aerospace symposium last fall. “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 is backing up those words. Earlier this year, he donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute. Run by MIT physicist Max Tegmark, the research organization focuses on “positive ways for humanity to steer its own course considering new technologies and challenges.”

Similarly sobering discussions on “killer robots” surfaced at this year’s Convention on Conventional Weapons. No longer just the stuff of James Cameron’s imagination, our first “Terminator”-type robots have already arrived in the form of two 330-pound bipedal machines named ATLAS and ESCHER. Built by the Google-owned Boston Dynamics, the machines are the result of millions of dollars of research from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — a blue-sky lab operated by the Pentagon. Several ATLAS models will face off June 5–6 near Los Angeles in a simulated disaster-relief obstacle course.

But there are plenty of less dangerous jobs for robots. Rodney Brooks, who gave the world the Roomba and founded Re-think Robotics, says that fears about artificial intelligence robots are overblown. “Assembling vast repositories of knowledge is different from volition,” Brooks wrote last year.

Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt is also optimistic about artificial intelligence.

“I think that this technology will ultimately be one of the greatest forces for good in mankind’s history simply because it makes people smarter,” he said during an interview at SXSW.

Let’s hope he’s right and that our future robots are more like a Wall-E than T-1000.

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