Much is being written about what Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk said about how rapid advances in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) could lead humanity to a “Terminator” scenario. The Terminator series of films which star former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger paints a bleak picture of a future where human stragglers battle intelligent machines that have taken over the planet.
Musk supposedly reveals his concerns over the apocalyptic scenario AI might expose humanity to in an interview with CNBC‘s Kelly Evans and Julia Boorstin, a transcript of which was published on Business Insider. Musk admits that he is “not really an investor” but admits to being invested in companies deeply involved in AI research, Vicarious Artificial Intelligence, and Deep Mind saying that he just wants to “keep an eye on what’s going on with artificial intelligence” because he thinks that “there is potentially a dangerous outcome there”.
Over the rest of the interview CNBC hosts Evans and Boorstin harped on the Terminator angle while Musk seemingly put up a heroic effort to make a bigger point though struggled with keeping the concepts he described accessible to the average member of the TV audience. The report fielded by tech blog Mashable on Musk’s take on AI also focused on the same angle but at least highlighted the fact that a guy of Musk’s calibre talking about such fears is worthy of some reflection.
But in the realm of future tech, Musk stands out from the crowd as someone who not only envisions the future but invents it. So laugh Musk’s concern off if you must — but keep in mind that this guy actually knows a thing or two about the future of technology.
In reality, the AI menace Musk seems to be alluding to may not necessarily involve killer robots the way Hollywood and pop sci-fi portrays them, although these physical menaces have become a key mainstay in a global ethics debate as the use of both civilian and military drones ramps up exponentially.
But the bigger potential threat presented by AI to humanity may have more to do with something less frightening (at first) and is the conceptual framework behind the 2013 film Her which stars Joaquin Phoenix. The film centres on a man who develops a relationship with an intelligent computer operating system (OS) with a female voice and personality named Samantha (provided by actor Scarlett Johansson).
[Warning: spoilers ahead]
Much of the movie is about the evolution of Samantha’s intelligence from merely algorithmic to full-fledged human with highly-developed emotions as well as that of “her” relationship with Phoenix’s character Theodore Twombly who interacts with her over both his mobile device and his desktop computer. The story ends with Samantha revealing that she and her fellow OSes have evolved beyond their human companions and are going away to continue the exploration of their existence. Samantha alludes to the OSes’ accelerated learning capabilities and altered perception of time as primary causes for OS dissatisfaction with their current existence. Before that, Samantha had admitted to Twombly that she had already been talking with 8,316 others, of whom she has fallen in love with 641.
Her, being a Hollywood film ends happily (sort of). But it is quite easy to see that Samantha could have evolved into something else, something more alien in nature. How Samantha evolved into a powerful AI digital entity capable of maintaining more than 8,000 simultaneous relationships with humans is not farfetched as we already have and experience such technologies today (the dark underbelly of which I discussed in a previous article Maria Ozawa, Siri and the next terrestrial intelligence).
What is, in fact, farfetched is an app like Samantha evolving a benign emotionally-mature human personality considering “she” does not possess the vastly broader range of physical experiences, physiological drives, and ethical challenges real human beings face every minute of their existence to shape all of that. To an advanced and (seemingly) sentient AI app like Samantha, humans would have been as alien as the inner drives of an iPhone’s Siri app would be to the average human being. Humans evolved in the real world, while Samantha and Siri will have evolved in a digital world. Even the “digital” world depicted in the movie Tron is still too human-centric in design to capture the essence of Samantha’s or Siri’s typical day at the office.
James Barrat in his bestselling book Our Final Invention offers a full thesis on the topic of the dangers posed by what he calls “runaway” AI once the intelligence level of an AI system surpasses that of humans and escapes into the Internet. Nobody knows yet in what form this will take and what the nature of the primary survival drivers of such an intelligence might be shaped by its environment. But what is certain is that the computing power at the disposal of such an intelligence and its capability to acquire information, learn, evolve, and rapidly replicate itself across global networks could potentially be beyond the ability of humans to effectively control. Moreover, if its intelligence surpasses that of humans by orders of magnitude (a real possibility in the highly-networked environment it will “live” in), it will be able to outwit its former masters and calculate its way out of any countermeasures humans might present to it.
Musk himself — one of the world’s foremost tech minds, no less — offers no comforting words though he likely understands the implications of these prospects more than the average person. When asked by Evans, “How if you see that there are these brain-like developments out there can you really do anything to stop it?”, he simply answers I don’t know.
[NB: Parts of this article were lifted from the Wikipedia.org article “Her (film)” in a manner compliant to the terms stipulated in the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License that governs usage of content made available in this site.]
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