How Artificial Intelligence May Change the World (Whether You’re Ready or Not)

 Joaquin Phoenix confronts an AI in 'Her'.

Joaquin Phoenix confronts an AI in ‘Her’.

by Gene Turnbow

The new movie Her is the story of a man who falls in love with an operating system.  While it loosely falls in to the category of romantic farce, it does address an important question about the future of humanity with regard to our ever-increasing dependency on artificial intelligence.  The movie offers a view in the not-too-distant future of what artificial intelligence may be like, and the social and societal ramifications that may come with it.

What you see in the movie is smooth and effortless, and the protagonist uses his computer by talking to it – rarely, if ever, actually touching it.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil, the current head of technology at Google, has spent much of his life exploring the ramifications of what he calls the Singularity.  It’s the point at which we and our technology become essentially the same thing.  Though he has detractors who disagree, Kurzweil He predicts that in 30 years, humans will be able to upload their entire consciousness to a cybernetic host, and that the entirety of the human body will be replaceable by mechanical components within 90 years.

Kurzweil’s interest in humanity’s cyborganic destiny began about 1980 largely as a practical matter. He needed a way to predict and keep track of the pace of technological progress.  Introduce a product too soon, and it fails because the world isn’t ready for it.  Introduce it too late, and it’s over before it begins.  “Even at that time, technology was moving quickly enough that the world was going to be different by the time you finished a project,” he says. “So it’s like skeet shooting — you can’t shoot at the target.”

Moore’s law until recently was a common yardstick for estimating the advance of technology.  It  states that the number of transistors you can put on a microchip doubles about every two years – but we’ve since hit the lower limit.  Once you get down to a few atoms, you can’t go any lower!  Just the same, it’s been a surprisingly reliable rule of thumb.   Kurzweil, though, realized that measuring computing power based on a single criterion might not work over the long haul.  Physics does have its limits, after all – so he plotted the change over time in the amount of computing power, measured in MIPS (millions of instructions per second), that one could buy for $1,000.

Kurzweil’s curve looked a lot like Moore’s, with computing power doubling every couple of years. This worked backwards, too,  even extending the curve backwards through the decades to 1900.

Here’s what the exponential curves told him. We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. Kurzweil puts the date of the Singularity — never say he’s not conservative — at 2045. In that year, he estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today.

Kurzweil predicts that by 2045, we’ll be able to upload our entire minds to a cybernetic host – including our consciousness.  But that will be a copy.  It won’t be us.  A similar theme is explored in John Scalzi’s science fiction book series, Old Man’s War, in which people are made young again by transplanting their consciousness into new bodies.  The original can still exist, creating a moral and ethical conundrum the likes of which humanity has never dealt with before.
The seeds of this technology are sprouting already, though admittedly at this point trying to connect some of these dots is a bit of a reach:  DARPA wants to create robotic brains that resemble our own; and, direct mind-to-mind links are being effected for the first time in rats.  These two technologies are obviously incompatible now.  But will it always be so?
Only two things are certain.  First, that discussions of whether or not a particular area of research is wise are often interrupted by somebody having done it without waiting for the conclusions – and second, that we may not have long to wait.
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Gene Turnbow
Gene Turnbow

President of Krypton Media Group, Inc., radio personality and station manager of Part writer, part animator, part musician, part illustrator, part programmer, part entrepreneur – all geek.