Contemplation: The Coming Robot Apocalypse?

Hi Y’all!  Time for another contemplation (this may be an emerging dominant way of posting on this site).

It is Sunday, and I am lazing around in my room, drinking coffee and eating cinnamon buns and breakfast burritos (well actually a singular breakfast burrito, as plurality of that food stuff would likely lead to unpleasantness later on).  And as I drink the caffeinated elixir of life I partake in one of my favorite pastimes (besides the drinking of the elixir), which is browsing The New York Times.  Imagine my joy in encountering John Markoff’s “The Coming Superbrain” which discusses all manner of thoughts about the future of artificial intelligence and the possible apocalypse that could occur.

The piece is a wonderful little summary of individuals and thoughts involved in the whole A.I. debate.  Of course I will give the brief criticism that, while I enjoyed the subject matter, the title of the article kind of had me hoping for discussion about the approach of a giant omniscient floating brain.

You know, something like the brain spawn from Futurama

You know, something like the brain spawn from Futurama

But oh-well, contemplation on the future of potential malicious A.I. is pretty cool too.

Of course the article makes its references to the big hit pop-A.I. of the summer, which is “Terminator: Salvation.”  I’ll say that I am pretty down with seeing “Terminator: Salvation” even considering the relatively weak reviews I’ve read (which I won’t share here, because I don’t want to go look for them).  The reason is that I can’t see it hurting to get some kind of thoughts running about how to avoid death by evil robots.  In many ways this mindset is similar to why I’ll watch a ton of zombie flicks; better to have some ideas just in case the bad happens than it is to be caught clueless with the undead and/or killbots knocking at your door.

That being said the whole Terminator franchise seems to foresee the robotic end-of-days coming a lot sooner than I imagine it will, and really much of the debate around the whole “rise of A.I.” seems to focus on the time scale thing.  On one hand, as “The Coming Superbrain” points out, you’ve got folks like Raymond Kurzweil who believe that it is within their lifetimes.  Mr. Kurzweil is 61 years old, so stretching the limit at most some major advances in A.I., including uploading human memories to machines, would be due in the next forty years or so (good news for me I guess as I will be just a bit older than Mr. Kurzweil is now in 40 years).  Others, like Kevin Kelly, are more reluctant to set a specific time frame.

I tend to side with the Mr. Kelly’s in the world.  While I certainly believe that technology is advancing and that the future holds more advanced forms of A.I., I am not willing to commit to saying year whatever is when the self aware robots will be either our loyal servants or our ruthless overlords (though it is probably going to be 2087).

Part of the problem with all this thinking has to do with the whole problem of foresight in general.  While it is a lot of fun to think about what tomorrow will hold, there are really no certainties.  In high school I took a class called “future studies” which looked specifically at emerging technologies, arts, beliefs, etc. and contemplated what might become of them five, ten, twenty-five, a hundred years in the future.  I wish I had some of the notes from that class (which I took in the spring semester 2003, senior year of high school).  Things have unquestionably changed in the six years, but to what degree?  The difficulty is that we are stuck in the present and can only actually see things emerge in that present tense.  The fluidity of change and advancement, to the present accessible, to the past discoveries is constantly happening.  We can think about the future of A.I. considering what we have now, and comparing how it has advanced over the past years, thus forming a speculation about a trend of advancement, but any number of occurrences could change that (like the zombies arriving first).

Which leads to apocalypse . . . right?  Of course it does!  Take Mr. William Joy‘s assertion of “I think a catastrophe is more likely.”  Mr. Joy is my kind of dude, who looks more at the inevitability of apocalypse than the potential causes.  Why the fuck do you need Skynet to drop the nukes when you’ve got all sorts of extremists willing to do it?  And hell, that whole “global warming” shindig might not give us the reasonable time frame we need to develop the hyper advanced killbot models we’d like to have reign terror upon civilization (note: I use the word “like” lightly here, considering that I think there is only a small fringe of fetishists who get a real kick from deadly robots removing their spinal columns).  And who knows what else could happen; cosmic doomray from the depth of space, return of vicious pterodactyls, and, God forbid, the actual End of Days in the whole Biblical sense (Four Horsemen motherfuckers . . . that is all I have to say).

So you see, sure robots and/or the transhumans may turn out to be responsible for that which sees human demise (of course you can’t make transhuman without human), but at the same time it could be something else entirely.  Play the odds as you like.  Will we have more and more advanced and “intelligent” machines?  Sure, assuming nothing happens before we get to them.  Will these A.I. thinking machines be our downfall?  Possibly, possibly not.  In the end it might as likely be the Superbrain meaning, of couse, giant flying masses of gray matter that know all the secrets of time and space.

Side contemplation: Johnny 5 is to the Terminator as E.T. is to the Alien (xenomorph).  Analogies are pretty geeky, but you’ve reached a special place in nerd hierarchy when you start making pop scifi movie character analogies.

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~ by Nathaniel on May 24, 2009.

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