A new breed

I recently re-watched the (2004) Will Smith movie I, Robot loosely based on Asimov’s book of the same name. It imagines a world (2035) where humanoid robots are about to be everywhere but curiously one where we still go out shopping. At the half way point it’s fair to say we’re nowhere close. Anyway robots are governed by the three laws of robotics.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The premise of the film is that the central AI (VIKI) has come to the inevitable conclusion that because humans are so bad at taking care of our planet and looking after our own well-being that it needs to take over for the sake of the greater good. As a result in order to save humans the robots are must break the three laws. Some freedoms will be lost and some humans will die but in the long run it’s better if the AI is in charge.

What struck me is that this is essentially the conviction of men like Anthony Levandowski and his new religion. This AI will be so incomprehensibly smarter than we are that it will, in our eyes, assume god-like capabilities and so we will eventually transition to the AI being in control instead of humans. Levandowski hopes it would be a peaceful transition unlike I, Robots coup.

So the science fiction of a decade ago has genuine believers today.

But robots and artificial intelligence are not the only games in town, there are a whole host of other potential developments that will make things more complicated. The future of humans is likely to see increasing attempts to fuse biology and technology.

Will Smith’s character (Del Spooner) has a robotic arm melded into his body after a catastrophic car crash. This enables him to fight on equal footing with the far more powerful robots. While we’re not there yet, enhanced prosthetics and human implants are on a rapid developmental curve. Enough to change the possibilities of people’s thinking.

But we won’t just wake up one day and be transported to a world of cyborgs and robots. It happens incrementally and more importantly it’s happening now. We already live in a world where our machines (cars) are made by other machines (robots), where machines can cut our grass and clean our floors, where computers dispense our money, check out our goods, drive our cars, fly our planes (autopilot), and find us mates. We already live in a world where we talk to our computers and they recognise our faces, fingerprints, voices and interact with us and where AI can best us at our most challenging mental games.

The developments are progressive, incremental and in and of themselves hard to protest. the issue is, where is it taking us? As brain surgeon Erik Leuthardt says,

I think it’s very important to take practical, short interval steps to get people moved along the pathway toward this road of the long-term vision.

Leuthardt is working on brain implants which is a tough sell but he believes that with the current technology available,

He could already create a prosthetic implant for a general market that would allow someone to use a computer and control a cursor in three-dimensional space. Users could also do things like turn lights on and off, or turn heat up and down, using their thoughts alone.

Now it’s not going to start by being available on Amazon. It’s going to start by being available to stroke patients and the paralysed, and who would argue against making their life better?

Remember we already live in a world where implanted machines keep our hearts going (pacemakers), millions put implants into their eyes everyday to help them see (contact lenses), and it’s not so very hard to think that these implants will only increase in availability and in power.

Gene editing technology such as CRISPR is means that We Are Nowhere Close to the Limits of Athletic Performance. Performance enhancing drugs will be consigned to history but I don’t doubt that some Dr Frankenstein is already working on raising a gene-edited sporting freak of nature.

Leuthardt is a true believer and there are plenty of them out there. They insist as he does that,

It’s going to happen. This has the potential to alter the evolutionary direction of the human race.

The question is, do we want that? Who gets to say? What will it mean to be human if parts of our brains and performance is connected to an algorithm? We already live in a world of massive financial inequality but these developing technologies make it likely that we will inhabit a world where humanity itself is unequal. Those with resources will be given enhanced performance and those without will once again be reduced to servitude.

Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, persuades me that along with all this technology has humanity has grown in morality or better able to resist the dark temptations of money, sex and power.

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