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Talking ’Bout My Computer Generation
With computers increasing in sophistication at a pace that outstrips biological evolution, and scientists working toward creating the self-aware robot, are humans in danger of becoming last year’s model?

By William Kanapaux

All the hype about the philosophical underpinnings of The Matrix Reloaded overlooks the movie’s obvious shortcomings when it comes to depicting artificial intelligence: First, humans would make a lousy energy source compared to plutonium, and, secondly, if an artificial intelligence were smart enough to create a virtual world for humans kept alive in suspended animation, it should be able to write programs that shoot straight.

Chances are, the real-world future of artificial intelligence won’t be anything like the versions depicted in The Matrix, the Terminator films, 2001: A Space Odyssey or A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Depending on the expert, artificial intelligence could be a benign presence humming along in the background of our lives, a potentially destructive force that we can only hope doesn’t fall into the wrong hands or a new life-form that quickly evolves beyond anything we could ever conceive.

Artificial intelligence is already with us, in modest form. Speech- and face-recognition software and programs that monitor credit card transactions for fraud are examples of artificial intelligence that we’ve come to accept as a part of life in the modern world. One such project is Cyc (pronounced “psyche”), a $60-million effort to teach computers common sense through software that would become standard equipment on all machines.

The Cyc team has been at work since 1984 developing an “inference engine” that would serve as the brains for machine intelligence. Its software so far has more than 1 million rules that are designed to help machines understand those things about the world that we take for granted: Once people are dead, they stop buying things. Glasses of liquid should be carried right side up.

Its creators also instructed Cyc to ask questions if it needed a concept clarified. In 1986 it asked whether it was human, and later that year whether other computers were involved in similar projects.

The Defense Department found Cyc interesting enough to invest $25 million in it for testing as an anti-terrorism tool. Meanwhile, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is launching its own effort to create a cognitive system that possesses self-awareness.

Most computer systems, while powerful, are complex and susceptible to crashes. DARPA’s goal is to create a system that can take care of itself—testing for software problems and containing them before they crash the entire system. It also would be able to learn from experience, identify relevant information within huge amounts of data and make plans by anticipating different scenarios. While its battlefield implications are obvious, such a system also could be used for cleaning up toxic spills and aiding in disasters.

But overall, the AI field seems to be moving at a creaky pace, with no HALs or Agent Smiths in sight. Instead, we have a small robot vacuum called Roomba that can clean rooms unattended—at a snail’s pace—and sells for $200 at the Sharper Image. And the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab is busy with Cog, a humanlike robot with two arms that researchers hope will learn to sense its own physical actions and determine causal effect.

While the pace so far seems glacial, some top experts are concerned that progress may soon exceed our ability to comprehend or control it. Research in areas such as computer vision and navigation will eventually merge with discoveries in machine learning and reasoning, leading up to the creation of fully autonomous thinking machines. The ongoing exponential growth in computing power will allow these machines ultimately to develop “brains” beyond anything a human can imagine.

Except for the part where things turn out badly.

In 2000, Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems and a creator of the Unix operating system, caused quite a stir with his dire predictions in “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Published in Wired magazine, it offered a chilling version of where the future of technology might lead. In spirit, the Matrix films aren’t too far off the mark.

The essay predicts a future in which self-replicating intelligent robots—some operating on the molecular level—will crowd out humans and forever alter life as we know it. Humans will either merge consciousness with the new machines or face extinction. Sure, it sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but to Joy and other futurists, these events are only 30 to 50 years away. “By 2030,” he writes, “we are likely to be able to build machines, in quantity, a million times as powerful as the personal computers of today.”

Once intelligent robots exist, Joy says, it’s only a small step to a robot species. Robotics researcher Hans Moravec says that on an evolutionary scale, computers currently are no smarter than the fish that first crawled out of the primordial sea. But they are evolving 10 million times faster than biological creatures and should overtake humans in 50 years. As for the outcome of this close encounter between humans and their superintelligent progeny, he observes, “Biological species almost never survive encounters with superior competitors.”

Moravec, in his book Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, envisions the evolution of extraordinary forms of machine life that expand into all corners of the universe. He paints a wild vision of robotic races far removed from human experience, evolving in all directions. Inventor Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, sees a more benevolent future. He believes that humans will achieve immortality by merging with robots, and that we should welcome these intelligent machines as our offspring.

In at least one respect, our future will resemble The Matrix, Kurzweil predicts: By 2030, nanobots will course through our bloodstreams, mapping brain functions and sitting at our nerve endings ready to create any virtual reality we wish. Humans will be able to activate and deactivate these nanobots at will, moving freely between the real world and the virtual one.

Clearly not everyone subscribes to these visions. It would take more than computing power to create an intelligent, autonomous organism, the thinking goes, especially one possessing some form of consciousness. And it would seem that humans, as the creators of this intelligence, would have some kind of control over it.

No doubt it all seems far-fetched. But think about the way technology has crept into our lives. Fifty years ago, a mainframe computer as powerful as today’s desktops would fill a warehouse. Today, they’ve “invaded” our homes by the millions. Or think of The Matrix Reloaded. A nonstop assault of special effects creates an illusion of reality compelling enough to provoke a physiological response. Adrenaline pumps through our veins. Our muscles tense. Our bodies feel the action, even as we sit immobilized in a darkened room.

Maybe we’re closer to these outlandish futures than we think.

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