In the 1984 movie The Terminator, a powerful, artificially intelligent computer called Skynet became self-aware, took control of the world’s weapons arsenals, including its nuclear weapons, declared war on its creators, and launched an all-out war on humans. Its mission: to wipe humankind off the face off the earth.
Terminator was a great movie, and made for great entertainment, but it left a lingering question in the mind of the audience: is it possible in real life?
The idea of artificially intelligent computers going rogue and taking over the world is not new, and is a recurring theme in dozens of science fiction movies and novels, like the movieEx Machina, the Matrix movie series and Asimov’s novel, “I, Robot”, which was also adapted into a movie.
It is perhaps because of the ideas propagated by these works of fiction that, whenever there are discussions on the rapid pace of technological advancement, and AI in particular, the first reaction for a lot of people is one of fear, or at the very least, concern. I’ve personally been told after numerous talks and presentations that nothing good can come out of technology in the long run.
But it’s not just works of fiction that spread these ideas. Some leading scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs have also expressed concern about the rise of artificial intelligence. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, warns that AI is “our biggest existential threat”. The late Stephen Hawking was concerned that “AI could spell the end of the human race”.
Then there are breakthroughs in the world of technology that are so astounding that they leave no doubt that computers are getting really, really smart. One such breakthrough happened last year when an AlphaGo, a computer equipped with deep learning artificial intelligence capabilities, won a game of Go against the reigning world champion, Lee Se-dol.
When you consider that Go is an ancient game which is extremely complex, where players use moves and strategies handed down over generations, then you can begin to appreciate the enormity of this accomplishment.
But it didn’t stop there. The creators of AlphaGo went on to create an even more advanced system called AlphaGo Zero, which wiped out AlphaGo at the same game. It accomplished this after only 40 days of self-learning.
Then there was the news of Google Assistant, an artificial intelligence system that made a natural, human-like phone call to a salon and made an appointment.
What exactly is Artificial Intelligence?
A survey conducted in 2017 by Sage, an American cloud business management services company, revealed that nearly 50% of consumers in the USA and the UK had no idea what artificial intelligence was about. It will be reasonable to assume that South Africans are no different.
So what exactly is artificial intelligence, or AI? Putting it very simply, AI is a term used when machines are programmed to mimic human intelligence and cognitive functions such as learning and problem solving.
AI can be applied to achieve something as simple as playing and winning a game of tic-tac- toe, through performing optical character recognition, where computers recognize handwriting. Then there are the really complex functions like controlling self-driving cars.
We use AI on an almost daily basis. Google Assistant on Android devices is an example of advanced AI, and so is your mobile phone’s camera app that recognizes and highlights human faces. Google maps also has AI which helps you to find the quickest route to your destination.
Many times, we put our lives in the hands of AI without even realizing it. Have you taken a long flight recently? When the pilot switches to auto-pilot, who do you think is keeping the plane in the air? You guessed it: artificial intelligence algorithms.
Is AI essentially a Threat?
So, the big question is, are we going to face an evil, super-intelligent computer like Skynet someday in the future? Is it possible that we have already begun to create this “Frankenstein” machine that will someday gain consciousness and become our nemesis?
While people like Elon Musk believe that this is indeed possible, a lot of experts strongly disagree, saying that the opponents of AI are vastly over-estimating its power and under- estimating the power of the human mind. Other experts warn that needless fear-mongering is irresponsible, as it will potentially hinder the progress of technology.
One such person is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, who said that Elon Musk’s statement was “irresponsible”.
Dr. Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Institute, a department within Toyota that works on artificial intelligence projects, believes that artificial intelligence has tremendous potential for improving people’s lives, and that sentiments like those expressed by Elon Musk could be “emotional reactions to science-fiction dystopian descriptions of AI overlords”.
To answer the big question, AI is not evil. Computers are not, and cannot be evil. They are lifeless machines, and AI is nothing more than a set of instructions that we feed into a machine, nothing more.
The bigger concern should be “who” is giving those instructions.
What is the future of AI?
It is almost impossible to predict the trajectory that technology is going to take with any degree of certainty. In the 1980’s we had phones, computers, video cassette players, audio cassette players, still cameras, video cameras and modems. Yet no one could have predicted that one day all those devices will be compressed into a small piece of glass and metal in the palms of our hands. But fast forward to 2018, and we cannot live without our cell phones.
We will just have to wait and see how the story unravels, with cautious optimism. Technology certainly has the potential to improve our lives, but it will undoubtedly bring with it new challenges. But§ in time we will, as a human race, overcome these, like we did countless times in the past.
So, should we be afraid of artificial intelligence? There’s no evidence that suggests we should. But then again, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are no fools. Were they perhaps onto something?