Three ways to react to the rise of the machines

Keith McNulty

“The system goes on-line August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.”

Fans of sci-fi may recognize this quote from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As a child, the scenario it portrayed utterly terrified me. It’s not the first movie that featured machines becoming self-aware. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is famous for the calm, monotonic but spine-chilling utterance from HAL 9000: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”.

Movies and fiction of the 1970s-1990s are not short of scenarios depicting the conversion of digital, computerized technology into a human state of consciousness. Artificial Intelligence was, until not too long ago, seen as a rapid growth of computerized learning that would result in a sudden transition to an intelligent life form. It’s not an unrealistic end game that a technology can become self-aware. This video, for example, shows that technology is capable of passing a form of the ‘King’s wise men’ test of self-consciousness.

Looking at it from today’s lens, we should be both relieved and concerned at the same time. We should be relieved because the SkyNet incident from Terminator 2 hasn’t happened. We are still nowhere near a level of AI that would genuinely replace the complexity of the human brain. AI has no doubt come a very long way, but it can currently only reliably replace the simplest, most predictable decisions that humans make. Even machines that can win at Jeopardy or Go do so because they can process a more complex set of scenarios than humans at any given point in time, but only within a defined universe of possibilities. Original thought is still out of reach of the robots.

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