I finally found the time to watch Transcendence, a movie from last year that illustrates how artificial intelligence (AI) could become a threat to humanity. Considering the low rating my expectations were not high. And indeed I was not impressed. What could have been an influential contribution to the important debate about the moral, ethical and existential consequences of AI became a superficial and exaggerated Hollywood production picturing the fight of “the good” (humans) against “the bad” (the machine).
This questionable flick aside, lately the rise of intelligent machines and the impact on humanity has become a topic of wide public discussions anyway, dividing computer scientists and other experts into two camps: Those who are predominantly excited about the possibilities, and those who emphasize the potential threats of AI. The latter sentiment is also widespread among regular people. The idea of the intelligent, autonomous machine as a potential threat is popular and obviously being fueled by movies such as Transcendence.
However, nobody can know for sure where all this is heading and how long it might take until we reach the famous point of “singularity”: A moment at which AI exceeds human intellectual capacity. The sceptics could be right, the optimistic could be right, or both. If you are looking for a informative primer about what to expect in an era of AI, I recommend this long (pretty optimistic) piece.
I to some extend sympathize with both camps. I think it is important to find ways to make sure that AI serves us humans instead of turning us into slaves – or even worse – destroying humanity. On the other hand I am certain that human intelligence can benefit from ever smarter computers. In fact – whether anybody likes this or not – it might be our only chance to save us and this planet.
The overall scepticism about AI as shown in Transcendence leads to an interesting question:
Why do those critical of a powerful AI always see it as something threatening and bad, thereby declaring humans as the good guys?
The answer, I believe, is obvious: Because we actually want to see us as the good guys. Not only that. We humans usually see us as the smartest creatures around. Animals are cute and nice, but they are kind of limited in their intellectual capacity. When it counts, most of us put our lives over those of animals. We humans see us as fairly sophisticated, smart, considerate. We built amazing things and accomplish great goals, we solve problems, we improve the world, we help each other and take care of each other…
Obviously that is one one part of the coin. There is a flip-side. Thanks to evolution, humans are certainly pretty capable today, no doubt. But we are also quite limited in our capabilities. For the time of our existence we have created misery, death and pain. Sometimes well-intended. But the outcomes were horrible. We act irrational, are driven by emotions and insecurities. We indulge in useless conflicts, are jealous, make stupid decisions, hate each other, fight each other, kill each other, exploit scarce resources, buy a lot of useless stuff while others lack the basics, are superstitious, believe in the craziest things and constantly overestimate our skills of evaluating a situation properly and objectively. And yeah, we created the nuclear bomb, too.
But this is uncomfortable to think about or talk about. We prefer the illusion of our sophistication and intelligence, and probably this also was what drove civilization forward. Fake it till you make it, so to speak.
Looking at all the human flaws, whose direct and indirect consequences we can read about and watch in the news every day, tells me that instead of condemning AI, we should embrace it. Possibly we even have to embrace it. Because AI can finally help us to overcome our weaknesses as humanity. Weaknesses that we prefer to ignore as much as possible. Weaknesses that often are being sold as “what makes us human”, thereby as the most natural thing. That is probably true. But humans can evolve. Looking at where the world stands in 2015, business as usual seems to be an increasingly less wise way to move forward. If we want to have a good future, that is.
The idea of extraterrestrial life, maybe in the form of creatures that are superior compared to humans in regards to their intelligence level, or the concept of smart machines scare us so much because we know of our flaws and the trouble we are causing to each other and the place we call Earth. Most people hate being in a room with somebody who appears to be much smarter. And most people also hate to imagine that humans would not be the most intelligent physical entity anymore. Actually, I struggle with even imagining how it would feel.
And yet, maybe this will happen. So we are forced to look into the mirror and realize that if we not shape up and work towards become better, smarter, more cooperating, more long-term oriented and less selfish, chances are high that our future computer overlords will not have very high regards of us.
After all, it was humans who invented this thing that eventually might turn against them. Who would even do something like that?!