Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Transhumanism "on the verge of creating a new lifeform"

Even Rolling Stone is getting in on the transhumanist act.

Jeff Godell wrote a long read on the subject of artificial intelligence for the magazine. And I do mean long (which is by no means a bad thing if you're a reader.) What's more, it's only part one. While titled "Inside the Artificial Intelligence Revolution," it is the subheading that caught my attention: "We may be on the verge of creating a new life form..."

Much of this part of the piece reads like a primer. It underscores how artificial intelligence isn't really an obscure, futuristic concept anymore. It's everywhere. It's in your smartphone, in cars (whether traditional or especially self-driving), in the Roomba vacuum cleaner, and it's growing only more prominent on Facebook. What's really making the difference, making the next quantum leap possible, is machine learning.

This comes about via algorithms that mimic the human mind's ability to learn. Through these algorithms we have developed IBM's Watson, famous for winning on Jeopardy, and Google's Deep Mind. That latter device taught itself to play the game Space Invaders and now plays it far better than any human. Doesn't sound like an impressive feat to you? Not on the surface, maybe. Video game skill doesn't exactly advance the human race.

Consider this, however. Deep Mind did not know the rules to Space Invaders. It taught itself through playing the game. Due to its advanced algorithms, Deep Mind found a way to utterly master it in a matter of hours. "It's like watching a fish evolve into a human in a matter of hours."

Research is underway to house the same machine learning patterns inside robots. Through this, worker robots are learning simple tasks such as tying knots and folding towels. Obviously there is a very long way to go before robots are doing anything truly sophisticated in terms of thought but Godell does justifiably ask us to take pause and consider this: a robot is learning to fold a towel.

It's not what these devices are doing presently that matters. Ultimately, it is the fact that they are demonstrating they can learn. As trends continue, we may reasonably expect a time when, as Kurzweil calls it, the Singularity arrives. This is when the thinking abilities of artificial intelligence exceeds that of human capacity (glad to see Kurzweil at least mentioned in the article, by the way.) Couple that with something like Atlas and just watch the fireworks.

Of course that's what people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are concerned about. If AI is to truly become this advanced, we had better do it through strict guidelines with our own safety. Valid concerns for sure, but I find this other cautionary statement more likely and...sadly...more in keeping with human nature:

"As Marcelo Rinesi, the chief technology officer at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, has put it, "The future isn't a robot boot stamping on a human face forever. It's a world where everything you see has a little telemarketer inside them, one that knows everything about you and never, ever stops selling things to you."

Yep. Ads. Nonstop. Always coming at you. I had a bit like that in my short story, "Nothing Left but the Cockroaches." Comment or email if you want a free (Free!) copy.

Like I said, this article was something a primer for the uninitiated, but it is well-written nonetheless. I am awaiting the next part where I believe (hopefully) the really interesting questions will be considered. As the article says, this is a technological revolution unlike any other. It will change things more than the wheel and the steam engine combined. We are, as it says, on the verge of creating a new life form. We are creating things that think. What happens when we combine that with cybernetics? What are the ethical considerations of having, really, other beings in our charge? Those are the questions that truly challenge my mind, even more so than "can we even do it?" I know that sounds like odd, reverse logic, but I tend to think in future terms.

I am hoping that Godell gets to those questions in part two. Please oh please do.

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