Does artificial intelligence foreshadow Utopia or Dystopia?

AI has already produced great benefits

A twenty-first century ‘Singularity’?

Have you heard the building speculation about an approaching ‘Singularity’ –  i.e., a time, perhaps in this century, when artificial intelligence (AI)-based machines have become so powerful that they begin to ‘think’ for themselves and even determine their own evolutionary path? The greatest minds in AI range in opinion from strongly optimistic to darkly pessimistic about what such a development could mean for mankind.

Don’t consider this wild speculation. It’s based primarily on Moore’s Law, first observed by Gordon Moore in 1965, that the number of transistors that can be packed into a standard-sized chip will continue to double every 18 months. This projection has continued to hold true for 50 years, though some IT gurus now speculate that this rate of expansion may slow down by 2020-2022. Regardless, amazing AI-related changes are solidly in place that will continue to revolutionize our culture and economy into the foreseeable future.

Just think back to how different your life was 12 years ago when the Internet only beginning to gain momentum. In that very short span of time, the Internet has become our Global Brain.

And now get ready for the wild synergy of an Internet driven by AI!

Amazing AI business and other benefits to date:

AI has already produced great benefits. One dramatic recent example was the World Cup opening ceremony in which a young paraplegic equipped with a 60-pound robotic exoskeleton made the first kick solely with the power of his thought.

The implications of the AI revolution for business are profoundly exciting. New AI-related technologies will revolutionize not only products and services, but how business is conducted both online and face-to-face. That transformation is well under way…

A short list of AI technology breakthroughs:
  • Continually improving cochlear implants have already given 400,000 + people the ability to radically improve their hearing, some gaining that sense for the first time in their lives.
  • An Israeli company, OrCam has combined advanced digital sensors and algorithms to provide rudimentary sight for the visually impaired (potentially changing the lives of 20 million in the U.S., alone).
  • Another application of the same technology: a combination of a glasses-mounted camera with speaker that reads (vocalizes) the labels on products.
  • Driverless cars are already legal in California, Nevada, Michigan and Florida.
  • Prototypes of voice-controlled TVs and automobiles are in development.

Unprecedented hope for the future:

  • AI-research companies like Vicarious, whose investors include Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and other luminaries are engineering a new generation of computers that mimic the structure of the human brain. Their objective? To learn how to cure diseases, create inexpensive, renewable energy and perform an increasing range of human jobs (the latter, of course, controversial because of its potential threat to economic and social stability).
  • As light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) become cheaper, it’s only a matter of time before living room walls will morph into giant video wallpaper screens. Recent sci-fi movies seem to be on target in their depiction of this coming development.
  • And, if you’ve viewed the movie “Her,” about a human-AI character intimate relationship, you saw a fascinating dramatization of how our increasingly individualized lives will one day be able to seek the comfort of AI personalities to help us feel cared for. Would there be potential downsides to this? Of course… 
  • Even more amazing, we will increasingly progress from external brain extenders like Google, Wikipedia, and Smartphones to internal brain implants that will dramatically improve the functioning and ability of the cerebral cortex, potentially allowing us to fully connect to the Cloud and with all other humans. That will be some years into the future, but we already have begun implanting brain devices to control seizures and Parkinson’s.
  • So, we are now on a path to becoming cyborgs. And, I’d hazard to guess that most of us will welcome the enhanced health, increased memory and power of cognition this will give us.

Of course, as with all sweeping technological change, there are potential perils, including the expansion of AI warfare, drones being the most immediate example that I’ll explore below.

Devices are now beginning to understand more than commands

Recapping the incredible benefits

We’ve all been heartened by news reports of amputees regaining arm and leg function with robotic mind-controlled prostheses. We know that AI-guided machines are already better than humans at navigation, data mining, search, even chess and Jeopardy! than humans…not to forget the pervasive impacts resulting from AI enhancements to our hearing, vision, transportation, manufacturing and entertainment.

And, as discussed in my last blog, parallel to and integrated with these advances are the increasing number of ‘external brain extenders,’ especially our smartphones, that we have so quickly come to take for granted. AI-integrated visual and auditory recognition systems like Siri and Kinect already allow us to interact with devices using voice and gestures.

Arguably the biggest downside to date

The NSA, an agency entrusted to protect the Constitution, has used AI-enhanced supercharged metadata tools to monitor millions phone calls and all of the Internet—including, of course, all email.

The near future

As these technologies advance, human – AI interaction is becoming increasingly more intuitive. Devices are now beginning to understand more than commands: they are now gaining the ability to sense emotions in our voices for more realistic, empathic responses. This new category of ‘living’ objects will interact with us very much like – and increasingly be indistinguishable from – living beings.

It should be noted that AI skeptics remain who are not completely convinced that AI computational breakthroughs will anytime soon be able to replicate the incredible complexity of the human brain. Nonetheless, major IT shakers and movers are betting on companies like Vicarious to achieve just that by, for starters, creating computers that can recognize the combination of objects, shapes, and even textures to begin that progression.

Pandora’s box

What’s the primary motive for AI investors? The hope of long-term profit, of course. If virtual, affordable, human brains can eventually be created, who wouldn’t want that technology for pharmaceutical, medical, and weapons development research?

The greatest emerging threat:

  • AI research and development will continue to focus heavily on weapons research and development. Super-intelligent, autonomous, weapons will likely be at least as aggressive as we are. When attack drones, for example, are given independent decision making power (already in development), who will be responsible for the death and destruction resulting from ‘AI mistakes?’
  • Over 50 nations are now developing battlefield drones and robots, initially, only rich countries will be able to afford that lethal power. But when that technology inevitably becomes much more affordable, it will also become available to terrorist groups and even individuals with twisted, destructive agendas.

Finally, will human beings with vastly expanded, AI-generated individual and collective intelligence retain the redemptive aspirations that define our spiritual natures?

The dystopian potential of advanced AI

Because human ethics continue to lag behind our technological advances, we need to be aware of the dystopian potential of these developments:

The scariest scenario: if and when AI evolves to the point it can autonomously improve upon its own capacities, it will develop unimaginable powers. AI machines will quickly develop defenses against any failure mode, including being switched off. They’ll actively, even aggressively, seek to acquire whatever resources they need to ensure survival with an agenda that may be no more enlightened than our own ( as seen in our species’ history of war, pervasive social problems and the despoliation of Earth’s environment).