Is Artificial Intelligence A Threat?

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“I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”
— Alan Turing, Computing machinery and intelligence

“Artificial intelligence will reach human levels by around 2029. Follow that out further to, say, 2045, we will have multiplied the intelligence, the human biological machine intelligence of our civilization a billion-fold.”
— Ray Kurzweil

The present discussion on artificial intelligence (AI) is not a technical one and hence starts off with an uncomplicated definition based on a non-technical understanding of artificial intelligence as software intelligence found in non-human systems that “think and act rationally” like humans. We find the simplest types of such systems in the most modern appliances and equipment that make chores in households and offices easy and even enjoyable. Their most sophisticated types though are harnessed and utilized in the complex field of robotic science and technology which has been experiencing unprecedented velocity in the creation of remarkably new and more complex systems that unceasingly transcend their very recent predecessors. The path of the field’s advancement seems to be boundless and the issue of having the best is deemed irrelevant in a situation where something better perennially emerges.

People have witnessed a lot of amazing technological inventions and innovations in the multifaceted performances of artificial intelligence systems ever since the earliest stages of their development. Activities previously done with a lot of manual and muscular efforts are now accomplished with no sweat and just at the tip of one’s finger. I would venture to say that artificial intelligence is among the highest scientific and technological achievements of humanity in the post-modern civilization. As useful systems fundamentally designed to facilitate human productive activities, AI-based tools/implements/instruments should be viewed positively and with an air of appreciation and praise to the geniuses behind their creation. From this point of view, there is nothing to worry about AI as it is fully under human control generally for the purpose of work facilitation. Like when fire-making was first discovered and later enhanced with the invention of match and lighter, AI systems are basically facilitative. Humanity has benefitted a lot from the use of fire in so many practical purposes in the contexts of the household and the industry as well.

The positive aspect of AI is best depicted in the 1999 Robin-Williams-starrer movie The Bicentennial Man which is based on the 1993 novel The Positronic Man  co-authored by the celebrated science fictionist Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg. The highly sophisticated robot–an android, to be specific, having been designed to look and act like human–which is later called Andrew Martin first arrives at the posh mansion of the wealthy Martin  family for functional and facilitative purposes. As the story develops, Andrew Martin undergoes several upgrading–both external and internal–until the point where he develops self-consciousness and already acts spontaneously like human and with not an iota of non-human traces anymore. The story unilaterally dwells on the good side of humanity as Andrew in his most fully developed “humanness” is the personification of a cultured, non-violent, sober, rational and sympathetic person.

We might opine that despite the leaps and bounds seen in the achievements of robotic science and technology, humanity could yet be thousands and thousands of miles away from the realization of an Andrew Martin, i.e., if such point is ever truly realizable. But taking the matter hypothetically and imagining such a possibility, is it more rational to think of the immoral side of an android which is in diametrical opposition to the amiable “personality” of Andrew Martin in the movie? If the process basically starts off in programming, is it more rational to consider the possibility of a sinister conspiracy to create and programme diabolical androids designed to destroy significant segments of humanity for the evil programmers to take full control of planet Earth? This is the dark side of AI whose fiendish potentiality is not far-fetched. It is like fire which on the one hand is absolutely advantageous but also harmful on the other hand if tapped for criminal purposes. In this sense, it is reasonable to think that AI is both an opportunity and a threat.

But is there really something new in this circumstance when since time immemorial human beings in general are personifications of opportunities and threats toward each other? Why do we get troubled by the emerging power of AI which could on the one hand be constructive yet destructive on the other, while we fully know that the basic stuff of life is largely  characterized by both construction and destruction? Are we worried that humanity will soon be threatened by the dark side of AI systems when the truth of the matter is long before the advent of AI, humanity has always been threatened by the evil forces of totalitarian powers well-entrenched in governments and big capitalist empires in control of  nations’ economies? Future AI systems employed and mobilized in the service of these political and economic powers will certainly heighten the degree of their oppressive domination and intensify the common people’s oppression. In this penultimate condition, large-scale chaos will multiply in geometric proportion until the final annihilation of the human species on planet Earth. Without sounding like a biblical prophet, we seem to be heading toward that direction.

(c) Ruel F. Pepa, 15 April 2015

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