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Future of Artificial Intelligence: Optimistic or Ominous?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 11, 2014

If computers become smarter than we are, will they just keep us as pets or is civilization doomed? And if artificial intelligence fully surpasses ours, will that change what it means to be human?

Kurt Andersen's Vanity Fair article "Enthusiasts and Skeptics Debate Artificial Intelligence" probes these questions. He starts by asking Siri, the artificial intelligence (AI) app on his iPhone "What is the Singularity? Siri replies, "A technological singularity is a predicted point in the development of a civilization at which technological progress accelerates beyond the ability of present day humans to fully comprehend or predict." Some futurists predict Singularity by 2050. Some brilliant scientists and scholars differ on what that might mean, and possibilities are being explored in popular films.

In the movie "Transcendence," Johnny Depp stars as an AI genius trying to create an omniscient machine that also has a full range of human emotion. Terrorist Luddites poison Depp's character, but his consciousness is uploaded to the cloud leading survivors to wonder whether the disembodied intelligence is really him. The Spike Jonze movie "Her," set in the not too distant future, explores human-machine interaction as a man falls in love with an artificially female and surprisingly fickle computer operating system. Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who founded computer science in the 1930s, is also the subject of a recent movie. "The Imitation Game" is based on Turing's life, his work cracking the Nazis' Engima code, and his fascination with AI. The title is based on Turing's proposal for a test that would provide proof of when computers can pass as humans.

Andersen interviews Ray Kurzweil, who in 2005 wrote The Singularity Is Near, and who is Google's director of engineering, leading a research team trying to create software that would communicate in a fully human way. Kurzweil is also the co-founder, with Peter Diamandis, of Singularity University based at NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley and funded by what Andersen calls a "digital-industrial-complex pantheon: Cisco, Genetech, Nokia, GE, Google." Diamandis is an Ivy League educated entrepreneur whose book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, lays out a utopian future in which technology makes a healthy environment and social harmony possible.

Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer who now works at Microsoft Research, told Andersen he thinks machines might become convincingly human some time before the end of this century. Philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen wrote in the MIT Technology Review that "The Singularity Isn't Near." Kurzweil disagreed in response. In an interview with Anderson, Allen says neuroscience research shows many complexities of the human brain are still mysterious and the scale and scope of the "known unknowns" remain vast, so he doubts human-capable AI will happen soon. He says the deeper we look into natural systems the more we have to expand our knowledge and theories to characterize their detailed operations, and he calls that the complexity break.

Some scientists worry about technological superiority. Jaan Tallinn, who helped create Kazaa and co-founded Skype, thinks technology may not benefit us if we lose control of its development. Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Motors and founder the space travel company Space X, calls AI "our biggest existential threat." 

Lanier's most recent book, Who Owns the Future, is about politics, power, economics and jobs. He's not afraid smart machines will enslave us. He told Andersen he's worried that machine owners-digital big business-will use technology to impoverish and disempower the middle and working classes. Andersen writes that in Lanier's skeptical view, today's big data and mass market AI "amount to a stupendous con." The crowd sourced digital powerhouses, like Google, YouTube and Facebook, Lanier asserts, "are Tom Sawyer, and we're whitewashing their fences for free because they've bedazzled and tricked us into thinking its fun." Read the provocative Vanity Fair article, with thoughtful interviews and commentary, here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  science  technology 

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