Welcome to the inaugural column of Today’s Tomorrows here at Futurismic. For any readers who missed my introduction, I’m going to explore a science topic a month, with both some evaluation of current news on the topic and a chat about how it has been dealt with in science fiction.
A few days ago, I was at a futurist technology conference called FiRE in San Diego, listening to new developments in multiple fields. The speed of change right now is amazing. We first flew at all in 1903. Today, we have a space program that ranges from commercial ventures like Space-X to NASA flying by Saturn and operating remote-control rovers on Mars. In 1993, the Mosaic internet browser allowed us popular and easy access to the computing tools to create cyberspace; I’m reading information from all over the world in order to compose this article. My iPhone has more computing power than the room-sized computer I used to support the City of Fullerton, CA.
As I was listening to more fast change topics (cloud computing, solar power, technology in Africa, etc.), it dawned on me that we may need artificial intelligences to help us keep track of technology and its consequences (good and bad). We have world sized problems, many caused or magnified by all this change: the oceans are in serious trouble, the atmosphere is challenged, cultures are clashing in nasty ways, and a sneeze in one part of our global economy travels around the world in a moment. We may not be intelligent enough to solve these problems without help. So that’s the long way round on this month’s topic: Machines that Think.
It’s a timely topic. As soon as I started researching, a Twitter search showed multiple links and retweets of an article a friend of mine also sent me a link to at the New York Times: The Coming Superbrain, by John Markoff. Markoff also deals with both science and science fiction, and since I did different things with the topic, you might want to read his work as well as mine.
About twenty years ago, I worked at Douglas Aircraft on a project designed to capture the knowledge of older engineers by building an “expert system.” The software we used was called Knowledge Engineering Environment, or KEE, and training included flying to Silicon Valley and taking classes at a development shop where we were impressed that staff had their own espresso machine. We failed to be able to usefully regurgitate any of the data we collected at all. However, since then both corporate perks and artificial intelligence research have expanded. A quick search for “artificial intelligence jobs” produces ads looking for experts in machine learning, data mining, and computational linguistics (computer talk). So what are these people with AI titles doing? It’s possible they are waking the world around us up in little bits:
- C|Net reports that BMW is developing artificial intelligence for our in-car navigation systems.
- Over at Wired, they’re reporting that AI helped crack the mystery of the Indus script
- Last week, I saw the Einstein Robot at Calit2 smile at me during a tour of the lab.
None of these tools are going to pass the Turing test. The closest is, oddly, not Einstein, but the nav system. I yell at mine now; thankfully, it doesn’t yell back. But this new one may speak without being spoken to, and do handy things like recommend alternate routes.
Einstein was still a bit buggy. It had software that needed to be rebooted twice while I was trying to hold a conversation, and actually didn’t talk back, but simply emoted correctly – which is NOT a small task. Yay for that, Calit2 and Hanson Robotics. But it didn’t look or talk or walk like a man. The futurist in me now believes AI will be with us in a thousand small ways – as taken for granted as always-on email or mobile music – long before we approach most of the fictional treatments of AI. It will be in our cars, our phones, our alarm clocks and our lawn-mowing robots long before it tries to run the world.
I may not be holding the majority view. There are a number of brilliant AI pundits out there including Ray Kurzweil, Kevin Kelley, and Eliezer Yudkowsky who believe that thinking machines will be the transformative agent to a technological singularity, or a fork in the future road that we cannot see around. While I think they be right intellectually, I don’t see research results that bear them out at this point. That’s probably good, since we might end up with AIs that don’t pay us much attention. Luckily, these same people are advocates of planning ahead to avoid that outcome. Here’s a quote from a longer article by Eliezer: “[I] think that if we can handle the matter of AI at all, we should be able to create a mind that’s a far nicer person than anything evolution could have constructed.”
Yudkowsky’s article is part of a response to an apparently nasty fictional AI called Skynet that exists as part of the latest Terminator movie. Somewhat like the treatment that aliens get in film, AIs are generally presented as the bad boys with an Achilles heel we need to find so we can keep on living. There are more Matrix supercomputer type AIs on celluloid than thoughtful films like AI: Artificial Intelligence. But on paper, they are often given a better break. I have two novels that deal with the awakening of the Internet into a higher order of being to recommend.
The first is Technogenesis, by Syne Mitchell. This underappreciated novel is now out of print, but the very internet which is its subject will locate you a copy. Part adventure novel, part discussion of the many sides of AI, this is a worthy read where most of the science is at least believable. Yes, the AI in Technogenesis is the antihero, but not in the same relentless way that films tend to treat this kind of antagonist.
For a slightly easier to find current novel, you can look in the new science fiction shelves for Robert J. Sawyer’s www:Wake, a quick, entertaining, and thoroughly believable treatment of the internet awakening. Sawyer uses a young protagonist who learns to navigate the web through assistive devices, which proves to be an entry point for her to be the first to see the web in new ways. There is an excellent interview with Robert Sawyer on Tor.com.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and see your recommendations for books and stories worth reading about AI.
Read more from Brenda Cooper at her website!