Sunday, July 8, 2018

The coming of conscious machines?

The development of thinking machines evokes as much hope in the future as fearful dystopia.

Mankind has gone through three distinct turning points in its evolutionary history - discovered fire 100,000 years ago; developed language 10,000 years, and invented wheel 5.000 years ago – which triggered multitudes of other advances that have revolutionized human existence. Since then, within the overall arc of human history, not much seems to have changed. Else, we wouldn’t be living like those who lived five millennia ago, with parents and pals in cities with markets and governments. And, we wouldn’t fear life, share gossip, build relationships and celebrate birthdays like those in the past. Isn’t it a trivia that lot has changed without much remaining the same?

With a deep understanding of human history, tech entrepreneur and futurist Byron Reese offers a nuanced understanding of the change that is at our doorsteps, in the form of what he terms ‘the Fourth age’. This age will unleash the power of artificial intelligence and conscious computers in our daily existence, seemingly intelligent non-humans who will act autonomously to perform tasks that will ease our lives. There is every reason to believe that automation will bring efficient and healthy living within the reach of everybody on the planet. The prevailing technological turbulence will bring about dramatic breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and robotics in the next fifty years compared to what has been witnessed during the last five thousand years. 

The next generation artificial intelligent machines will outsmart its predecessors – from self-driven car to the talking robot – by being as smart as you and me. These will do more than what it would have been programmed to do, by figuring out what the new task expects it to perform. Within the emerging world of artificial general intelligence (AGI), the development of thinking machines evoke as much hope in future as fearful dystopia. Will machines make human redundant? Will smart automation gobble up all the jobs? Will it usher permanent Great Depression? 

Since it is about the change we haven’t seen yet, any discussions on the subject leads to confusion and misconception. The confusion is further compounded when the likes of Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates propound that artificial intelligence is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization, while their illustrious compatriots Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Ng, and Pedro Domingos lend weight to the argument that human future is safe in the hands of intelligent machines. Despite such polarized positions, the foremost fear concerning AGI is about its impact on jobs. Fears of a permanent Great Depression are beginning to cast its impact on people in the streets. Everyone seems to be asking: Will I lose my job? Will smart robots eliminate more jobs than the economy will create?  What should I do to protect my job? 

Reese takes the question head on, although it is devilishly complex because it isn’t known what all jobs robots can replace; to what level business will invest in developing artificial intelligence; and how will cost of labor impact the adoption of technology? Therefore, it is not a back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine the net effect of technology on jobs. What is perhaps easy is to realize that there are just three possible scenarios i.e., robot will take all jobs; robots will take some of the jobs; and robots will take none of the jobs, to make some sense of it.

Without doubt, introduction of technology does reduce the need for workers in particular sectors. Although the transition is often difficult, those eliminated from low-skilled jobs graduate into improving their skills to take on different jobs. However, the question is whether these numbers add.  The Bank ATMs and online trading websites are two interesting examples. It did rattle the bank tellers and the stockbrokers but over time technology has not only helped employ more people in building ATMs but the stockbrokers have exhibited their cognitive abilities too. The erstwhile low-skilled jobs have gained value through the use of computing technology. 

Although understanding the ever-expanding job market is mindboggling, no visible relationship between the use of robots and loss of job has yet been established. Despite the installation of far more robots between 1993 and 2007, Germany lost just 19 per cent of its manufacturing jobs compared to a 33 per cent in the US. Same has been true in other countries such as Italy, South Korea, and France that deployed more robots, lending credence to the widely held view that technology mostly augments workers, not replaces them. On top, people have always been able to create new jobs, more in the changing time now than ever in the past.   

The Fourth Age is about comprehending the accelerating change, and about understanding the universals of technology that drive progress. Understanding those universals will give us new insights on humanity’s unmistakable journey toward social justice and personal empowerment aimed at liberating humans, in the words of Charles Dickens, from the clutches of dehumanizing jobs. The need is to gain clarity on duality of co-existence with machines.

For robots to replace humans at home and in the workplace, AGI would need to exhibit the entire range of the various types of intelligence that humans have, such as social and emotional intelligence, the ability to ponder the past and the future, as well as creativity and true originality. To overcome the hurdles of attaining consciousness in computers, Elon Musk is proposing commingling computers with human brain to take directions. To make the best of both, the challenge lies in decoding the billions of synapses between a hundred billion neurons.  

While the cost of building robots is coming down, the challenge to build an AGI on the structure of the human brain has yet to show any tangible results. After spending a billion of dollars, the Human Brain Project is in total disarray. Reese provides a detailed account of the current competing societal perspectives on the relation between humans and our machines, on accelerating technological change, and on the future of mankind in a world of robots and humanoids. 

The core of the argument, however, is draw distinction between monism and dualism as two dominant beliefs about the nature of reality. While for monists creating a machine with human attributes is a serious possibility, dualists fervently disagree that a silicon-based computer will ever grasp the intricacies of a carbon-based human. Science is nowhere close to describing something like consciousness yet, but our relentless move forward and upward characteristic will reduce us from being Homo sapiens to Homo dissatisfactus. Byron Reese takes the reader into the rapidly unfolding world of artificial intelligence and robots, the one that is sure to revolutionize our physical being but our mental domain as well. Without doubt, The Fourth Age, is upon us. 

The Fourth Age
by Byron Reese
Simon & Schuster, New Delhi
Extent: 320, Price: Rs 399.

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine, dated July 9, 2018

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