As technology progresses to the point of the Singularity – when the capabilities of technology surpasses that of human intelligence – there are many important questions we’ll need to ask ourselves. I’ll link to a great two-part article on Wait But Why about AI, which will explain everything I’m saying much better. I’d definitely recommend reading the entire article, but it could be summed up by this: eventually, artificial intelligence will either allow humans to reach immortality or completely destroy our entire race.
No big deal, right?
When you think about technology in those extreme terms, it obviously becomes a much more serious discussion – in fact, it becomes one of the most serious discussions at this point in human history.
“But if that’s the case,” you may ask, “then why aren’t more people talking about it?”
Well, they are. And you should start paying attention. To help get you started, here’s a quick introduction to where AI is headed.
The True Phantom Menace
Technology advances at an exponential rate; we’re able to build off existing starting points and continually improve – just look at the progression of smartphone technology over the last ten years. If we could bring someone from 1917 to the present day, their minds would be blown after seeing just how telephones have changed in one hundred years. And if we brought someone from 1987 to 2017 to show them what computers can do now, they wouldn’t be able to believe their eyes – and that’s just thirty years. Now try to imagine where technology will be one hundred years from now – or even thirty. I didn’t have wifi for most of my life but now I can’t imagine my day-to-day without it. Most people wouldn’t have their current jobs without the internet. People alive now have seen more technological advancements than any other generation at any other point in history. And of course with that great power comes great responsibility.
Filmmakers and authors have been warning us about the dangers of technology for decades. Even Stephen Hawking has been quoted as saying artificial intelligence will be either the “best or worst thing” for humanity. We’ve seen and read enough stories of AI escaping our control and when you factor in North America’s post-9/11 paranoia, the ever-present threats of nuclear weapons and climate change, you can start to get a pretty bleak picture of our future.
Will Skynet take over? Will Ava from Ex Machina manipulate us to bend to her will? Will an army of droids invade after failed trade negotiations? Could Siri be the true phantom menace?
Star Wars prequel jokes aside, films and pop culture may have painted a much more dramatic picture of AI than reality. We may not have personal assistance robot likes in the Jetsons, but we already have entire factories run by machines; instead of Terminators or Robocops roaming the streets, there are self-driving cars. We interact with artificial intelligence on several different levels throughout our day, most of the time without even thinking twice about it. Your email server learns what type of email you mark as spam, Facebook suggests who you might be friends with, your phone gives you traffic and weather alerts based on your location.
The Greater Good
These are examples of technology working for the greater good. AI can make our lives significantly better by making menial tasks easier, improving online experiences, making travelling more convenient and removing hassle from our lives – all very good things. And technology will continue to do those things, by improving current tasks and adding new benefits. Self-driving cars is a perfect example of that. When acting simply as a smarter cruise control setting, self-driving cars can make for a much easier drive. And by lessening the margin of human error, they can provide a much safer driving experience (though the technology may not quite be there yet). Comfort and safety greatly improve the current experience – but technology can also add new benefits. Imagine being able to summon your car to drive you to work at 8:00am and then, instead of sitting in the parking lot all day, it leaves to pick up your neighbour to drive them around town while they do their errands then returns to pick you up from work. Then you check your bank account and the amount of money your neighbour would spend on public transit and what you would spend on gas (plus interest) would be automatically added. Based on the fact that most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, Tesla has already developed plans for a shared fleet as part of Elon Musk’s Master Plan. Not to mention the added environmental benefits of self-driving electric cars and the traffic burden automated fleets would lift.
You can already sit in your hybrid car and use your phone to track your heartbeat. Then go home and use it to analyze your sleep cycle to improve your health. I’m not a doctor, but I know technology has already made huge impacts in the medical world. Surgeries are performed that were unimaginable years ago. Scientists are even close to being able to 3D print human organs. Think about those possibilities for a moment – if we could accurately create muscle and organ tissue, what would that mean? What if we could build an artificial heart that could simply be replaced every eighty years or, like Teslas, be upgraded to the latest software for added health benefits? Or what if we could inject nanobots into our bloodstream to find and remove cancer cells? Then what if those nanobots could move your blood around – completely negating the need for a heart? They could also provide any vitamins and nutrients we need, also removing any need for eating. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has said that we “have the means right now to live long enough to live forever. Existing knowledge can be aggressively applied to dramatically slow down aging processes so we can still be in vital health when the more radical life extending therapies from biotechnology and nanotechnology become available.” He also believes that technology and biology will continue to merge until they’re one in the same, until humans are completely artificial – because why not? Replace your aching and aging joints with new ones, print new skin tissue to cover that scar or tattoo, upload old memories to the cloud – because imagine all the memories you’d have while living for centuries and centuries and centuries…
Are you scared yet?
From Here to Eternity
At what point in the fusion of technology and biology do we stop being human? Sickness, hunger and aging could become things we couldn’t believe our ancestors ever had to deal with – like not being able to Google simple questions. Even pain itself could be a thing of the past. People born today may never have to see others grow old and frail, or may never experience death.
These are all essentially positive things, but why are they met with an unsettling sense of dread? Does feeling pain make us human? Are our lives significant because we need to make the most of the finite time we have? Are we defined by our own mortality? For most of human history we’ve fought against our mortality – battling sickness and building legacies and monuments that will outlast our own lives. Every major religion is centred around a perfect eternal afterlife. But what’s left to strive for after finding eternity? If we achieve eternal life completely on our own then why wait for heaven? We’d already be there.
But would that even be considered a “heaven”?
It’s something to think about for sure. And as technology continues to progress, these thoughts will come closer to the forefront of everyone’s minds.