Talks about artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, technological singularity and other buzzwords along those lines are widely used in media right now. Because its a trend today, marketing and PR departments of companies shift the focus of products, at least in the description, to somehow allow the usage of these buzzwords to attract, you guessed it, more buzz and ultimately more shares on social media platforms.
Not everybody approves of AI today
Some of the brightest minds of humanity we know today have also expressed their concern about advanced AI technologies. The concerns are beyond commercial interests or politics. They are talking about an existential risk for humanity and civilization, as well as the planet earth. Apparently, we were entertained by books and movies about advanced machines endangering the human race, and yet we did not learn a lesson from fiction.
Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking don’t see this black and white, however, they also clearly state the advantages of utilizing robots and other systems with advanced functionality to support mankind and improve our lives. I feel that they are seeing the facts realistically without hiding the risks in this field of research.
Conceptions of AI go back a long time
In a letter to the editor of The Press, in Christchurch, New Zealand, dated 13 June of 1863, Samuel Butler writes about machine evolution and future-looking statements about AI. The letter was titled “Darwin Among the Machines” and not only references Charles Darwin’s works of evolution theory therein but also describes how he sees “mechanical life” developing similarly to biological life.
He wonders how machine evolution will turn out for mankind, “In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.”…”Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.”
Next to other futuristic statements, Butler closes his letter with critical remarks and warnings, “Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.” He signs the letter as “Cellarius.” Remember – this was in 1863.
In “Erewhon,” a satiric novel about a dystopian future, published in 1872, Butler goes further and even considers machines to think and reproduce like living organisms, only with the difference that newly created mechanical entities will be the offspring of a large group of parents and not only have a father and mother. These self-replicating machines will be superior to humans but still employ people to assist them in maintenance and reproduction. Of course, we have to differentiate science-fiction from actual science, but the thoughts of these old works seem more than intriguing.
Picked up again in the 90s
A long time later, much closer to modern day, George Dyson published the book “Darwin among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence” in 1998, picking up on the thoughts of Butler, combining it with ideas of Alan Turing and his own. This book focuses on the rise of AI being inevitable, considering the Internet itself being a living, sentient entity.
There are also exciting points around how humans could form collective intelligence (swarm intelligence), or “socially distributed intelligence” much like insect societies. Whether or not that could lead to superiority over machine intelligence or AI is not mentioned.
Dyson writes, “[It] is presumptuous to assume that artificial intelligence will operate on a level or a time scale, that we are able to comprehend. As we merge toward collective intelligence, our own language and intelligence may be related to a subsidiary role or left behind. When the brass head speaks, there is no guarantee that it will speak in a language that we can understand.”.
Dear AI pioneers
In closing this article, I’d like to address a few lines to computer scientists and researchers in the field of AI and related technologies. Even if you’re smart enough and have the resources to achieve significant milestones, before you do something, think about it first. Think about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how you are doing it. What you do now, might be imperative for how AI might change our lives in the future. I support you. This work is essential and exciting, but it must be done responsibly.
Take your time, because as stated above, the ideas and visions of AI are not new. They are 100+ years old. Nobody will be upset if you take longer just because you hesitated on a particular step in your work. Follow the laws of robotics and make sure every first line of code emphasizes humans to be makers and to be relevant to the development of technologies. Make machines understand that we do play a role in their advancement as part of their program and should coexist with them without being above or below them.