With chaos in the White House, worsening climate change around the globe, more wars than we can count and a wobbling economy here at home, the last thing we need is another big challenge. But look out! Here comes a doozy!
Zooming at us at blinding speed, it's AI, the fast-evolving science of artificial intelligence. In common parlance: robots. But these are not the clunky, somewhat cute machines performing rote tasks. AI, essentially, has evolved to become an electronic brain — a web of ever-more-complex supercomputers interacting as one cognitive unit that can program itself, make decisions and act independently of the humans who're creating them. AI is not only powering a metastasizing array of autonomous machines that can think, learn and even reproduce themselves, but the advanced technology of digital intelligence has also begun restructuring our economic order, social frameworks and cultural ethic.
Consider self-driving vehicles. Once the stuff of science fiction, the future is suddenly upon us, with Google starting to market a driverless taxi service, Daimler developing a line of commercial trucks that drive themselves and General Motors rolling out a car with no steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. Wall Street, Silicon Valley and an army of corporate lobbyists are rushing to legislative halls, literally changing the rules of the road to allow full deployment of these vehicles.
What about the hundreds of thousands of professional drivers who'll lose their jobs? Not our problem, say the moneyed financiers and AI barons who'll profit from a mass botmobile conversion. Besides, as one AI champion coldly asserts, those who drive for a living get sick, take vacations, etc. "People are messy," he notes; "machines are straightforward."
Indeed, so straightforward that these 2-ton, nonsentient "drivers" will be driving straight at a world of defenseless pedestrians. Already, one of Uber's experimental cars, equipped with the most sophisticated sensors and software, killed an Arizona pedestrian last year.
We can fix that, says Andrew Ng, a prominent AI investor. They just have to be reprogramed. By "they," Ng doesn't mean the self-driving machines; he means we pedestrians must be reprogramed! "Please be lawful," he scolds, "and please be considerate" of the computer-driven vehicles. Obey pedestrian signs, don't jaywalk, give right of way to the new technology.
So, don't just prepare yourself for a brave new world of automations; prepare to be re-educated so you interact properly with them and don't get in their way.
We humans have got to get a whole lot smarter, says Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of Tesla and CEO of SpaceX.
Musk is not merely despairing about humanity's recent tendency to elect lunatics to lead our countries. Rather, he's trying to warn us about the rapid rise of artificial intelligence. These thinking machines are rapidly increasing in number and geometrically advancing their IQ, prompting Musk and others to view AI technologies in apocalyptic terms. As algorithms and systems inevitably grow more sophisticated, he says, "digital intelligence will exceed biological intelligence by a substantial margin."
In graphic terms, Musk warns that profiteering humans are "summoning the devil" by creating a new superior species of beings that will end up dominating humanity, becoming "an immortal dictator from which we would never escape." What's weird is not his dystopian prognosis (other experts confirm that runaway bot intelligence is a real threat), but his solution. The way for us human beings to compete with AI, says Musk, is to merge with it. Not a corporate transaction, but a literal merger: surgically implant AI devices in human brains with "a bunch of tiny wires" that would fuse people with super intelligence.
Uh-huh ... and what could go wrong with that? It's good to have technological geniuses alert us to looming dangers, but maybe the larger community of humanists ought to lead the search for answers.
Populist author, public speaker and radio commentator Jim Hightower writes "The Hightower Lowdown," a monthly newsletter chronicling the ongoing fights by America's ordinary people against rule by plutocratic elites. Sign up at HightowerLowdown.org.