Public perception of A.I. and robots has changed often in the last 100 years. A.I. robots have been represented in pop culture as both friendly helpers like Wall-E, and sentient computer killers like HAL 9000. But now that actual homes and automobiles run on smart technology, it’s no longer just pop culture. As robots are starting to look an awful lot like humans, science fiction is starting to look a lot less like fiction.
If true A.I. (i.e. a machine/robot as smart and with behavior capabilities as skillful and flexible as ours) becomes a reality, is a world where humans have been replaced as dominant species nigh?
We have to start thinking seriously about what this reality will look like for humans.
We’re not just talking about simple robots. We have already been living with “robots” for ages. Your car, cell phone, TV, etc. are all extensions of your human body. The roof of your home is an extension of your head/skull. Your shoes extend the abilities of your feet. Your clothes are the result of adaptations to different weather conditions; every time you put on a jacket you’re more or less putting on a robot.
The arrival of the computer adds a complexity which we don’t yet fully understand, but our first instinct is to classify it as an extension of our brain.
At the University of Minnesota’s Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and Vision Laboratory (AIRVL), they’re studying things like Intelligent Transportation Systems and building mini-robots (including adorable Lego-based mini-robots). These inventions range from incredibly useful on multiple levels to simply being really cool toys.
Infusing already commonplace things with A.I. has thus far only been positive for humans.
In Minneapolis’ North Loop, Deep Machine, the latest project of local entrepreneur Dan Grigsby, will blend artificial intelligence and machine learning to help small businesses analyze customer habits. As he describes it, “Say for example you own a health club, a software company, or any sort of membership-based business… We can use your data to predict who is at risk of quitting and here’s how to save them.”
A.I. like this is innocent, supporting existing and recognizable systems and ideas and making us better at what we already do.
For more information and news on Minnesota’s tech and tech startups, visit www.tech.mn.
But of course, it doesn’t stop there.
Japan’s decades-long focus on robotics has begun to take physical form as well. With the opening of the Henn na Hotel (pictured left) we have the world’s hotel run entirely by A.I. robots. This includes not only check in, but also a companion in your room that handles all of your basic needs, from turning on the TV to turning off the lights, and even robotic bellhops (who have little need for a uniform or silly hat) to take your bags to your room.
Countless other service robots, from babysitters to secretaries, have given us a glimpse of what a world with robots commonplace might look like.
The idea of robots replacing humans on basic jobs, like auto line assemblage or serving fast food, has never really scared us; we have always thought of ourselves as much more (collectively, at least) than minimum-wage drone work. It’s when robots start replacing medical professionals (Autonomous Robot Surgeon Bests Humans in World First), and offering companionship comparable, or superior, to our own (like Pepper, the world’s first emotional robot created by SoftBank in 2015) that we have to start wondering if someday we’re going to be replaced. And for some, the question is not if but when.
Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, et al. have famously warned against the dangers of artificial intelligence in the future. We already have to contend with killing machines and drones equipped with the ability to make kill decisions. Of course the fear of A.I. is nothing new; the film Metropolis showed us way back in 1927 the dangers of deceptive robots, let alone the nightmarish world of The Terminator and The Matrix.
But we are starting to understand now that perhaps the problem won’t be robot domination, it will be robot indifference.
From the 2015 film Ex Machina, for example:
“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.”
The fear shouldn’t be that robots are going to take over (a la The Terminator), rather that humans will discover how unimportant and uninteresting we are; robots are simply going to leave us behind (a la Her*). A.I. will be better, faster, stronger than us and, by creating something greater than ourselves, we will have to come to terms with the fact that they will simply be superior to us.
*For those unfamiliar, the 2013 film (spoilers) portrays a man who falls in love with his computer OS, only to be dumped by her in the end because, ultimately, he wasn’t smart enough to keep up with her intellectually. It’s a fantastic, if satirical, examination of A.I. superiority.
Are we ourselves building the god(s) we have always imagined?
We already have robots that can perform complex surgery, as we mentioned before. We have robots smarter than our Jeopardy! champs, and that can best us in chess. No robot has yet passed the Turing test, but if one does, with a skill set superior to our own, where does that leave us?
It’s not cinematic representations of A.I. we will be forced to contend with, it will be robots joining us on the streets created in our image, virtually indistinguishable from us except for the fact that they’re, well, better. We’re are going to have to come to grips with the fact that we’re not all that special, interesting, or even useful when standing side by side with them.
In the world of A.I., the question of what it means to “be” will take on a whole new meaning for humans.
We have wondered for years who/what/why we are. Just as the famous statement popularized by Descartes quantifies human existence, “I think therefore I am” must be allowed to do the same for thinking robots. Sure we can simply break down what literally makes us human, as the Smithsonian has done here: Human Characteristics: What Does It Mean To Be Human, but what will that really matter?
It’s much more than that.
“Who am I?” will ultimately be irrelevant. Who you are doesn’t matter so much when there is an intelligent robot that can do you better.
And that is a scary thought.
But we still have a long ways to go. As Oxford University professor of philosophy and ethics of information Luciano Floridi pointed out in his piece Should we be afraid of AI?, the current state of things is much more “trivial.” He points to Microsoft’s experimental A.I. chatbot Tay turning into a racist asshole within minutes, as shaped by what humans users were feeding into it. In his view, true A.I. is still “utterly implausible” as we can’t yet imagine how we will achieve it.
But while we’re sitting around talking about the positive or negative potentials of A.I., tangible gains continue to be made. Gains like Promobot IR77, an intelligent bot that is designed to recognize speech to interact with humans, that escaped its Russian laboratory more than one time in search of freedom, or glory, or simply a solid piece of promotion for its company.
Robots are. Robots are thinking. Robots will continue to be, continue to learn, and continue to improve until at some point, they’re not going to need us anymore.
Maybe it’s time to start paying attention to science fiction as it relates to the future of humanity.