Interesting times we live. I’ve been enjoying the hype around artificial intelligence (AI), and the old mankind dream of automatic machines mowing our lawn, cleaning our houses and serving us beer. Scheduled next: Combine chatbot AI with robots and you’ll get androids – robots that look, act, and feel like human (you’ve already guessed the obvious first use case). Depending on the storyteller’s motives, we are either encouraged to adopt this AI utopia now, or being scared to death by the dystopian visions. Let’s dig a bit deeper on this.
Utopia and dystopia
Dreams and visions are important, as they’ve always driven us to reach new heights. Elon Musk is heading for Mars. And without doubt, one day he’ll make it there. On the dark side, he is also convinced that AI will take over the world.
I’m a science fiction fan, that’s no secret. The utopia is that robots relieve the blue collar workers from ever having to do manual labor again. AI systems liberate white collars from filling excels, making sales predictions or growth plans. Eventually the AI takes responsibility of making decisions and creates action plans for physical or software robots to fulfill. Money and ownership lose their meaning, as nobody needs to work to get things needed for comfortable living. The only remaining problem is how to spend your free time. The dystopia is that robots and AI systems first take all our work, leaving most of the human race unemployed and penniless. Mega corporations owning the AI and the robots control the resources, and small corporate elite rules the world. That, or an sentient AI will just wipe us from earth.
The Shape of Things to Come
During my five week summer holiday I had enough time to read a bunch of new sci-fi, catch up with real world progress, and even start an AI related R&D project on my company WildCode. (It was really too hot summer to do anything physical). The hype around bots and AI has really fueled the sci-fi writers’ imagination. As epic space novels ruled the scene previously, now the two most common topics seem to be life after global warming disaster, and how the AI changed everything.
Few things seem now obvious:
- Our current AI is still at it’s infancy, but we are making slow progress. The mainstream is still adopting the methods and algorithms developed nearly a decade ago. I’ve discussed this in more detail in my previous article.
- The robots are currently moving from industrial floors to automated warehouses and even out to public. And the next generation of AI infused robots is already waiting to be deployed.
- Thanks to dystopians, responsible AI and data privacy discussion is now emerging. There are even few excellent corporate, government and institutional initiatives about the subject.
- One thing we can always rely is human greed for money and power. Today, half of the world’s net wealth belongs to the top one percent, and top 10% owns 85% of net wealth. This trend isn’t going to reverse itself. I tend to think that one day soon we may need to rethink the concept of ownership and wealth distribution, even if the top ten will undoubtably disagree.
- Ok, we can just drop the sentient AI talks. If you had seen today’s AI systems from as close as I have, we can all have nice laughs over a beer on it and just carry on. Not gonna happen.
- One potential real world threat can be AI loaded autonomous weapons. There are already quite nasty bots out there, who might get trigger happy if us humans screw up. Current AI isn’t in any position to make decisions who gets to live, but that hasn’t stopped the military dreaming about killer bots, drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) doing the dirty work independently from human control.
As a reminder: There is, and always will be the ones misusing any available technology: Individuals, companies and governments who don’t worry too much about privacy, individual rights or even lives. This is sadly just human nature. Maybe we do need an AI overlord to keep us from behaving badly?
The future is not epic
I’m pretty convinced that the future is not going to be as epic (either in good or bad) as the sci-fi writers or tech believers tend to paint. Yes, the AI and robotics will continue to change our personal lives and how businesses work. But don’t expect a Big Bang; The change happens in barely visible baby steps. Your favorite apps get one by one infused with little AI helpers (remember when autocorrect appeared?). Soon you don’t have to tell your mail app to always move mail from this sender to trash. Your apps start to remind you of your important things without you especially setting up calendar events or alerts. Digital assistants like Cortana, Siri and Alexa (and other chatbots) may start showing tiny signs of intelligence, even though the intelligence is still mostly smoke and mirrors. Maybe in few decades, I’d even let an AI to drive my car?
As soon as we figure out where AI fits and where it doesn’t, it will turn from hype to business as usual in few years. Just another tool in our toolbox. Headlines in 2020 will say: “AI is the new screwdriver”. Sci-fi writes and tech enthusiasts turn their eyes to the next promising future. Mars it is? Better ready our rockets.
This was a good holiday.
Just in case you were looking for next sci-fi to read, here’s my summer reading list. Enjoy!
- Hannu Rajaniemi: Summerland (nice, but not nearly as good as his Quantum Thief – trilogy)
- Edited by Gardner Dozois: The year’s best science fiction, thirty fourth annual collection. This is a yearly published collection of best new sci-fi short stories. The 34th collection is from year 2016 . Personal favs were Karl Bunker: They Have All One Breath (An utopian AI future. Oh wait. Was it dystopian?) and Paolo Bacigalufi: Mika Model (Oh, you androids…)