Rise of the Machines—Or Not?

Artificial intelligence, aka AI, has fascinated ─ and frightened ─ us since the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s. Pop culture, technology and literature all provide us with vivid images: The Terminator movies, The Matrix Trilogy and George Orwell’s famous novel 1984 More recently, Hollywood is again picking up on our collective concern with action-packed films like The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and psychological thrillers like Ex Machina.

In the real world, early, imperfect versions already have arrived:

  • A prominent example is IBM’s Watson. A learning machine, which is a precursor to AI, Watson crawls the Internet to answer questions and evenbested two humans when he competed on Jeopardy in 2011.
  • Similarly, four professional human poker players are currently matched against Carnegie Mellon University’s artificial intelligence program, Claudico, in an 80,000-hand “Brains Vs. Artificial Intelligence“poker competition. The competition furthers Carnegie Mellon’s pioneering research in artificial intelligence, which began with the creation of the first AI program, Logic Theorist, in 1956. So far, the humans have prevailed overall, but Claudico still has some wins under its belt and even maintains a lead over one player.
  • A form of artificial intelligence, natural language processing (NLP) has already been integrated into our lives. NLP is a collection of software algorithms that break down sentence structures and understand their intent and sentiment.The NSA uses it. Apple’s Siri is one everyday example.

While existing versions of driverless cars are essentially computer systems that respond to sensors, the ultimate aim will be life-saving learning machines that connect and communicate with the environment around them to make our roads less congested with nearly flawless safety records. Scientists and influencers have opined about the benefits of a life saturated with computing and artificial intelligence. Theoretical physicist and co-founder of string field theory Michio Kaku encourages us to imagine our walls lined with computer screens that provide instant access to valuable legal or medical advice, everything we need at our fingertips.

So will artificial intelligence be our conqueror or our savior?

Likely, neither. Like it’s creator, artificial intelligence will be inherently flawed.

Thought leaders, such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates, give warnings.

In January, Hawking and Musk signed an open letter promising to ensure AI research benefits humanity — but also urging caution that, without safeguards, intelligent machines could destroy us. Hawking even told BBCthat: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Musk went so far as to donate $10 million to The Future of Life Institute to keep AI friendly, safe and “beneficial for humanity.”

In many respects, they are right.

If humanity generates superintelligence and allows it to grow on its own without adequate supervision and control methods, machines could assert dominance over humans, which it may see as a threat. The logic to arrive at that conclusion looks something like this:

IF high levels of intelligence require logic, emotion and instinct (a combination of both logic and emotion)

AND humans possess high levels of logic, emotion and instinct

AND emotion is flawed

THEN humans are flawed

It follows that,

IF artificial intelligence cannot give birth to itself

THEN something else must give birth to AI


IF humans are the only beings to give birth to AI

AND humans are flawed

THEN artificial intelligence is flawed

Proponents of AI will argue that humans will be able to develop the “perfect” AI, one void of our flaws. However, this argument makes the assumption that AI will be implemented by benevolent people who are aware of every human flaw and are therefore able to either omit those flaws or specifically codify them as exclusions. This argument also assumes that there will not be multiple implementations of AI systems, or that a “benevolent” system will somehow root out evil AI systems.

Rather than delve into the human psyche, let’s explore what we understand about AI.

First, what is it? The definition varies, but for ease of discussion, let’s break AI into two evolutionary stages:

  1. Independent robots – the genesis
  2. Global consciousness – the culmination

A robot, such as the Terminator, iRobot, or even the more adorable WALL-E, are concepts that demonstrate perfect implementations of AI in our first scenario. Though it doesn’t have to be humanoid, it understands emotion and can perform and understand the duties of a human.

As more of these robots communicate and connect, an overarching system could unfold. Think of the The Matrix’s premise, a connected, conscious system that is everywhere and nowhere. A flawless implementation of AI would not just understand and know, but be able to react ─ to prevent car crashes, casualties from natural disasters or acts of war.

Myriad scenarios could unfold. The only certainty, right now, is that AI will happen. It already is ─ whether in the public eye or the dark basement of a lab. We would be naive to believe we can (or should) prevent it. That said, remember that every piece of technology ever created has always, and will always, be used at some point by some unscrupulous player. Nuclear science led to the atomic bomb, propulsion technology brought guided missiles, the Internet is used as a medium for child pornography and provides the government with limitless spying capabilities… the list goes on.

So what is the remedy to moving AI in the right direction and protecting the human race?

Although Bill Gates and Elon Musk ─ and Michio Kaku ─ point out that we must start to address the challenges immediately, they don’t describe what that would look like.

The only answer is a constant and proactive approach, a system of checks and balances. And, yes, that should sound familiar. It’s the same concept the U.S. founding fathers employed to create a revolutionary approach to government. The tech community needs to develop a process for ongoing oversight, one that recognizes the power of AI and the fragility of the life around it: us.

Although the origin of the quote is debated, a saying often attributed to Thomas Jefferson is, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Such insight understands the nature of man in that it cannot be trusted with authority over humanity without a means to remove that authority from power when it becomes destructive.

Thanks to fossil records, multiple publications have reported that over 99 percent of all species that have ever lived on Earth are extinct. According to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, even humans will need to adapt to beat such dire odds.

In the meantime, scientists worldwide are diligently working to breathe life into a series of sensors, circuit boards, and software algorithms. One day, those carefully organized structures of rare earth metals powered by batteries and sunlight will perform surgeries on our fragile human bodies, transport potable water across the globe for us to remain hydrated, and even prepare our meals from farm to plate so that no human goes hungry. Let’s remain engaged in this achievement and know when it’s time to hit the “reset” button that should be installed on every last piece.

– Nick Anthony