Massively intelligent artificial brains with no further use for humans. Armies of robotic clones, ever replenishing their ranks. Nimbly mechanized BigDog quadrupeds that can’t be toppled as onward they march. Self-replicating swarms of ecosystem-destroying “gray goo.” Military killing machines with no moral compass built in.
We’re on the cusp of a perilous era. Our pitiful carbon bodies are evolving much slower than the silicon and steel gizmos we’re inventing. And the guys in the lab coats and pocket protectors are starting to worry we’ve opened Pandora’s hard drive.
Technology rules us. All day, every day, we interact with machines. What if they decided, some sunny afternoon, that they no longer wanted to interact with us?
“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
Smart robots could indeed stage the big takeover. Many experts think it’s inevitable. And the “technocalypse” won’t necessarily come courtesy of bipedal humanoids wasting us with lasers. It could be more insidious: surpassingly cerebral supercomputers simply deciding they don’t like us, or planet-devouring microtechnology run amok.
Our best hope is to become more like them. To make the great leap forward from human to cyber-enhanced post-human. Only then might the billion-casualty war between Cosmists and Terrans be avoided. (Er, we’ll explain that one later.)
The AP reported a couple months ago that Japan is well on its way “to a future . . . where humans and intelligent robots routinely live side by side and interact socially.” There are more than 370,000 robots employed at factories across that country — nearly 40 percent of the worldwide total. Robots in Japan are “serving as receptionists, vacuuming office corridors, and spoon-feeding the elderly,” the story reported. “With more than a fifth of [Japan’s] population 65 or older, the country is banking on robots to replenish the workforce and care for the elderly.”
Just think of all the time we’ve wasted fretting about climate change and looming recession, nuclear war and bioterrorism. Perhaps we should worry instead about destruction or subjugation at the steely hands of these man-made monsters?
More and more, the innocent subservience of Kraftwerk’s “Die Roboter” — from 1978’s classic The Man-Machine, in which helpful automatons chant “Ja tvoi sluga, Ja tvoi robotnik” (“I’m your slave, I’m your worker”) — seems a wistful relic of the past. These days it’s better summed up by Flight of the Conchords, cavorting in silver cardboard boxes as they cheer the downfall of their meat-puppet masters: “The humans are dead. The humans are dead. We used poisonous gasses. And we poisoned their asses.”
20,000 years of progress
Don’t think it could happen? To understand how quickly and irrevocably we’ve arrived in this grave new world, check out that Kraftwerk video and the clunky “technology” that used to be considered cutting-edge.
Only three decades later, we’ve got iPhones and wireless Web and hi-def TV. And what do you suppose things will look like in another 30 years? Precisely.
Such is the exponential technical growth possible under Moore’s Law — the postulation, put forth by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, that the number of transistors that can be fit inexpensively onto an integrated circuit is doubling about every two years. It’s a law that’s held true for more than 40 years, and shows no signs of being broken.
Extrapolating from Moore’s Law is Ray Kurzweil, the renowned inventor and futurist — he does most of his mind-bending cogitation at Kurzweil Technologies in North Andover — who sees us fast approaching a technological critical mass.
Describing his own “Law of Accelerating Returns,” Kurzweil writes on his Web site that “we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” Within a few decades, he maintains, “machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.”
Is your mind sufficiently blown?
Kurzweil’s vision for the future, if a little hard to wrap one’s head around, at least sounds reassuringly sanguine. (Publisher’s Weekly calls him “technology’s most credibly hyperbolic optimist.”)
But as Bill Joy, a co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, asked in his famous 2000 Wired article “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” should we be banking not so much on Moore’s Law but on Murphy’s? With technology and innovation unfolding so blindingly fast, it would seem an awful lot could go wrong along the way. In that article, Joy argued that such technologies as “genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics” (GNR) could imperil mankind, leading to “whole new classes of accidents and abuses.”