One of the biggest civilisational questions dangling in the air is when will machine intelligence overtake human intelligence. Popularly defined as the technological singularity event—the tipping point when machines will overtake humans in terms of intelligence—it may occur within the lifetime of people born in the seventies or later. The most famous prophet of technological singularity in our times is scientist-writer Ray Kurzweil who, in 2008, founded the Singularity University in California to advance the study of technological singularity and at the same time explore how humans can keep up with machine intelligence through exponentially developing nanotechnology and biotechnology.
A hundred years ago, the word “computers” referred to human accounting assistants who used to compute numbers by hand. Those human computers have long been replaced by ubiquitous machine computers and calculators. Except science historians, I would doubt very much whether a regular person today even knows that once computers were humans. That has not dampened our enthusiasm for computers in all forms and fashions, from the "big irons"—the super high-performance mainframes—to the super high-tech smartphones. Pretty much everyone thinks of computers as productivity tools and personal aids; nobody in their right mind thinks of computers as a threat.
Then why do we get so worked up over robots? Robots are simply computers with gears. May be its their humanoid forms, animal-like locomotion or almost human-like chatting ability—capabilities once thought to be confined to intelligent animals and humans—that are no longer sacrosanct. When you add to the mix the real possibility of such machines taking over humans in terms of intelligence, then the spectre of a machine Armageddon takes over popular imagination. The fears are not without reason. Intelligent chat-bots can now answer routine questions from automated call centres while the human clients are usually unaware that they are talking to machines. Robotic process automation, or RPA, is slowly taking over many routine document processing functions in banking, insurance, libraries, government archives and other places. Such document processing is the mainstay of business process outsourcing, or BPO in short, which has been a goldmine of white-collar jobs and export revenues for developing countries such as India, Philippines and Vietnam in recent years.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to completely kill off this industry in the next two to three decades. On the other hand, hazardous works like welding and handling noxious chemicals have been going to robots steadily over the years. This is certainly a welcome development as it frees human workers from unhealthy and dangerous work. What is disconcerting though is that many high-level professional functions such as legal research and advising, stock market research and brokerage and medical questions and answers (Q&A) are being routinely performed by computers these days in the technologically uppity countries, a trend that is bound to find its way into other countries including ours in a few years.
However, the real white-collar job scare comes from news snippets these days on robo-chefs and robo-surgeons as these were thought to be the bastions of human finesse and creativity safe from robotic invasion. A pricey robotic chef now can prepare a gourmet meal from pre-set menus based on signature recipes by famous chefs. High-end precision robotic arms can these days carry out surgeries under the watchful eyes of human surgeons. This technology is still in its early iterations, but in a few years, robotic surgeries may become routine. What this means is that all types of professional jobs are fertile grounds for robotic and AI incursion.
AI laboratories have in recent years also mapped human minds—human memories, personalities and knowledge—in order to replicate the human persona virtually. Some of these experiments have come up with virtual avatars of real human beings that are frighteningly life-like, almost as real as the virtual avatar of Supermen's father in the eponymous movie. This means, with enough data on the memories, personality profile and knowledge of our near and dear ones, we could let them live virtually for ever.
A couple of years ago, the robot Sophia showed her conversation prowess in front of Dhaka crowds, but in between lines, you could tell you are talking to a parrot reciting from memory or stock phrases and as such it was not that overwhelming, but when IBM's AI-powered computers Deep Blue and Watson took on the world chess and trivia champions and beat them hands down, the world was shocked at how far AI has progressed. That was twenty years ago. Obviously, AI has advanced more rapidly in recent years and current AI incarnations are literally generations ahead of Deep Blue and Watson. So, should we be afraid of a robotic take-over in the near future as portrayed in the movies “Terminator” and “I, Robot”, or should we bank on Kurzweilian brain-extensions through a combination of nanotechnology and biotechnology to keep pace with machine intelligence in the future? The jury is still out on this one but what is certain is that human civilisation will inexorably be intertwined with advancements in robotics making for a very different style of living and dying within a couple of generations.
Habibullah N Karim is an author, policy activist, investor and serial entrepreneur. He is a founder and former president of BASIS and founder/CEO of Technohaven Company Ltd.