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Will technology eventually destroy mankind?

Monday, January 5, 2015
Science and Society

Professor Steven Hawkins, the pre-eminent British scientist, recently told the BBC that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” What was his reason? “It would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an even increasing rate.” This is not the first instance of fears being expressed about mankind being destroyed by technology. 

One earlier, and still persisting fear, among significant portions of the global population, is that robots would someday rebel against their human masters. Nevertheless, the developing of fully intelligent and autonomous robots/machines is a very active, on-going area of research. 

The dire words of caution expressed by the great man have not really sparked the kind of intense debate one might have expected. The response, so far, has been somewhat muted and a few consider this fear to be overblown. It is generally acknowledged that fully autonomous machines, endowed with artificial intelligence, will not be a reality in the near term, and there are some who also express doubts about us reaching that stage.

Intelligence, of the natural human kind, is yet to have a definition that is universally accepted. The advent and acceptance of different kinds of intelligence, like social intelligence and emotional intelligence, have not made the picture any clearer. It would, however, appear that the notion or principle of domain-based types of intelligence has been accepted.

Thus a person can be emotionally unintelligent but be a scientific or musical genius. Can that person still be considered intelligent? Is there going to be an overall intelligence rating and if so, what domains of human endeavour will be included and how are they going to be weighted in the final IQ score?

Intelligence is not a standalone abstract characteristic. It gives a measure of an individual’s ability to solve problems of the real world and thus to be successful. It is logical and reasonable to come to the conclusion that a street-smart, uneducated (in the sense of having no formal schooling) person could possibly be more intelligent that an educated person! 

These issues serve to give but a preliminary insight into the complexities that need be firstly understood and then resolved, before any claims of full artificial intelligence can be made. Applications of artificial intelligence, however, are present in many household devices that surround us. 

Applications also exist in the commercial, industrial and military sectors and several ground breaking technologies are being tested, one of which is the driverless vehicle. The vast majority of these artificial intelligence technologies are of the computational decision-making type. They follow very strict rules (algorithms) and benefit from exceedingly fast computers which may range from microprocessors to super computers. 

The Japanese are leading the way in developing emotion-based facial gestures to incorporate basic emotional intelligence in machines, but it is a nascent field. The development of artificial emotional intelligence also requires research on the human response to machines as they interact with each other in the social sphere. 

One of my graduate students is engaged in investigating the response of musicians (of the human variety) to a robotic drummer being part of their musical ensemble. The outcome of this would lead to the incorporating, into the robot, the ability to respond to the emotions of both fellow musicians and the audience. I am yet to hear of any research that intends to incorporate negative emotions like hate, envy and bigotry into machines. If and when this occurs then there would cause for serious concern. 

It is men, seized by these qualities, who have inflicted unspeakable carnage and injustice on mankind. Of course, they have used technologies to so do; not autonomous or intelligent ones but passive technologies under their control. So it would appear that we have more to fear from vicious men than intelligent robots. 


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