Q&A: Machine-Dominated Future Poses Dilemma for Humans

Posted August 8th, 2014 at 2:16 pm (UTC+0)
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An engineer makes an adjustment to the robot, "The Incredible Bionic Man," at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. (Reuters)

An engineer makes an adjustment to the robot, “The Incredible Bionic Man,” at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. (Reuters)

Computers are getting smarter and faster as Artificial Intelligence development accelerates. And that is something that is worrying a lot of people. So much so that Tesla Motors and Space X chief Elon Musk went out of his way recently to tweet about the potential dangers of AI.

We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes – Elon Musk

As machines become more like humans and less like hardware, they will eventually overtake human intelligence – a product of thousands of years of evolution.

And with the promise of brain enhancements to augment human intelligence with neural implants or allow human-to-computer interfaces, the prospect of the cyborg society suddenly comes to life.

It is a thought that also worries Jonathan Mugan, author of The Curiosity Cycle.

In an email interview with TECHtonics, Mugan says now is the time to prepare for a machine-dominated future.

“Machines are technology. And technology expands as human knowledge expands. By contrast, human intelligence developed through evolution, which is a much slower process.”

Q. How do you mitigate the intelligence gap?

MUGAN: Once computers become broadly smarter than humans, it’s hard to predict what will happen. Some say we will need to merge with them in order to avoid the fate of becoming their pets or being exterminated. I believe that smarter computers are good for humans and that intelligent machines can help us solve many of our pressing problems.

The Internet is allowing us to learn more rapidly than ever before. 2000 years ago, we gained knowledge by interacting with our village or tribe … Now, even if only a single person in the world knows how to do something, that person can create a blog post that makes that knowledge instantly available to the entire planet. However, even though knowledge can now travel faster and wider, the basic power of our brains hasn’t changed.

… The idea that computers will continue to increase their intelligence and eventually surpass our own intuitively seems both inevitable and impossible. Computers get smarter every year. Will they hit some kind of wall before reaching our intelligence? I don’t see any principled reason for that to happen.

Dr. Bertholt Meyer (R) and James Pope assist the robot, "The Incredible Bionic Man," while it walks at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. (Reuters)

Dr. Bertholt Meyer (R) and James Pope assist the robot, “The Incredible Bionic Man,” while it walks at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. (Reuters)

… One way to think about the problem is that of maintaining autonomy. Currently, the U.S. government attacks with drones, but humans always make the decisions on when to fire. At what point should the drone able to decide for itself when to attack? That seems like a silly question, but imagine a lot of drones going into battle against humans and other drones. There wouldn’t be time for a human to check each and every time before a drone fires.

… If the electrical grid [and therefore the Internet] were to go out for an extended period of time, our food distribution system would grind to a halt, and there would most likely be significant suffering and death.

Q. If machines are going to do more of people’s work, then what areas of employment will be left to humans?

MUGAN: Jobs requiring creativity will be dominated by humans for a long time. And … interpersonal skills are still a capability that computers lack. These interpersonal skills are necessary for demonstrating compassion and sensitivity … My biggest fear with technology is the potential for a breakdown of the labor market. If robots can make everything, who will be able to buy what they produce?

Q. Why are you concerned about a potential labor market breakdown?

MUGAN: In the past, technology destroyed jobs, but it also created better ones. It is not clear if that trend will continue … As the cost of robots continues to come down, businesses will replace workers with these robots. The owners of these businesses will get richer because costs are lower, but the people who used to work those jobs will get poorer because of the downward pressure on wages. Eventually, I imagine that large portions of the population will not have any skills that exceed those of robots. At that point, what will we do?

Q. What skills should the next generation be equipped with?

MUGAN: The most important thing is that kids need to be adaptable enough to continually learn new skills. One specific such meta-skill is the ability to puzzle things out. An effective way to teach this skill is by teaching kids to program computers. While not all children will grow up to be programmers, all kids need to learn how to systematically work through problems, and programming creates a lot of problems.

… Everyone needs to know the basics of how computation works and how it affects our lives. From there, we should let the kids find topics that grab them. Some kids may love graphic arts, some kids may love the idea of starting a business. We should let their curiosity lead the way.

… One skill that I think is particularly valuable is having a theory of mind. We should teach kids to continually guess what the people around them are thinking. This is essential for communication and preventing others from taking advantage of you.

Q. How can you include kids in developing countries in this learning cycle?

MUGAN: Corruption and lack of access to education might be bigger barriers to success than being behind on technology. There is a virtually unlimited amount of technology available in the form of free software on the Internet. As long as developing nations can create an environment conducive to prosperity, the value of technology will flow to their citizens. In addition to free software, there is an abundance of free educational materials online.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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Whether you are in a big city or a small village – technology is in your hands, your pocket, your car, your home. It is everywhere. And everywhere, it is becoming us.

Techtonics looks at how technology intersects people’s lives, how it empowers them or traps them in a world increasingly obsessed with technological wonders even as privacy slips through its fingers. It aims to inform, discuss, and hopefully inspire.

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