Offbeat 05 December 2014
Earlier this week, the BBC quoted Stephen Hawkings as saying that artificial intelligence is a major threat to humanity, that thinking machines could spell the end of the human race.
I guess that being a genius, having your mind in the quantum clouds, means you don’t get much exposure to the rest of the world. Or perhaps he just gets a thrill from the Terminator movies. He says that AI and clever machines will begin to design and evolve themselves, superseding the human race.
I am not sure what the problem will be with that. The machines can do their own thing and the human race can continue with its own thing. In fact if I were some kind of incredible AI, I would keep humanity pacified by producing new mobile devices and handing them out for good behaviour. I would also give out vehicles and houses with swimming pools and air conditioning. That would reduce humanity’s discontent to about zero, and groups like ISIS or Boko Haram find themselves without any revolutionary zeal. As far as I can tell, humanity would be quite content to spend the rest of its existence posting fail videos to social networks, photos of new dresses and pictures of cute kitties. If I were a machine I would make sure that humanity had an endless supply of pools and skateboards [to make fail videos], new dresses and cute kittens. Elon Musk, the guy who makes electric cars and comes up with things like rocket ships and technologically advanced transport systems says that clever machines like the ones that bug Hawkings, will take over jobs for humans. In my big vision of things, if everyone has everything, then what’s the point of having jobs? If humanity needs something with which to occupy itself, it can do what it does now, and watch television sports or reality shows. In the future, there will be no jobs to get in the way of television, so everyone will be so slack-jawed that their will be no motivation to go out and fight. Or perhaps aggression can be sublimated into petty squabbles about different macrame techniques or decorative gardening styles. And perhaps the intellectual elites can lose themselves in a Herman Hesse ‘Glass Bead Game’ or spend days endlessly haggling about minor points of difference, much the same as they do now. The people who are wired for discontent, I imagine, could demonstrate for faster, bigger vehicles, maybe in a wider range of colours. If the machines become truly clever, I think they will hold off on release of new vehicles to nurture the protests and then release them when everybody has had a decent fill of righteous anger, and all the emotional fulfillment that goes with it.
The idea of how artificial intelligences might cope with humanity is a fun toy for the head, and this chain of thought has been good and cynical. However my best guess is that clever machines are made in man’s image, and will actually end up squabbling with one another for resources, the same way humanity does. Most likely the wars will be based on resources such as bandwidth and processing power, but will be delayed by the diplomacy of game-theory and incremental development of algorithms to counter increasingly sophisticated philosophical constructs.
The truth is that fretting about artificial intelligence, worrying about its ability to ruin mankind, is quite fruitless. Humanity has the ability to ruin itself, based on idiocy, without the complication of intelligence. Much like the David Bowie song, ‘Saviour Machine’, I can imagine machine intelligences abandoning hope for and interaction with humans, in monumental fits of depression. Perhaps they will end it all by formatting their own hard drives. Or maybe, like a large part of humanity, they will end up watching television and analysing sports statistics or attempting to calculate the infinite volumes of air in the heads of reality show stars. I’m not particularly worried about artificial intelligence. If it is made in man’s image, it will be just another bit of gristle in the stew pot.