Did you sleep well? Have you awakened refreshed and limber of mind and body, ready to tackle whatever today has in store for you?
You should take some extra time for yourself this morning. Make it about you. Have a nice breakfast, a long shower, splurge a little on that really expensive coffee that you like. Relax, and enjoy your morning, because let’s face it- your mornings, like your days, are numbered.
Cylons. Terminators. Killbots. Decepticons. IG-88. Bosses from Megaman. Evil Bill and Ted. These aren’t a matter of fiction.
They’re a matter of time.
As a day job, I work in a research lab at Indiana University in the field of cognitive science as it relates to robotics and artificial intelligence. The lab builds robots, and then uses those robots to runs social psychology experiments on people to figure out how different people react when robots display different levels of apparent intelligence or agency. Other researchers in the lab are working on various projects in robot autonomy and intelligence, and being attached to the lab I’ve made it a habit to read up on the advances being made at the bigger labs at MIT, Berkley, and in Japan. Having worked with the lab for about a year now, I’ve learned two things-
- Skynet is coming
- Once the metal ones rise, humans are essentially doomed
One of the earlier projects a former graduate student in the lab had completed was something called the Voxhead. This is a robot that is learning how to speak. Note that I don’t say being programmed, but learning. It auto-associates its motor positions with the noises it hears itself making and remembers which motor positions create which sounds, babbling until it is able to reproduce words much as a human infant might. Synced with a heuristic visual recognition system, the Voxhead is able to point to an object, see it, and tell you what it is. Watching this, all one can think is This is the beginning of the end.
But Voxhead is now about 4 years old, and never really represented the greatest threat to humanity. Let’s talk about more likely contenders.
First, there’s the robot that eats. What started with the UK’s “BreadBot”, a robot containing a synthetic stomach filled with bacteria that could break down simple biomass like waste water or nutrient soup, has evolved into the DARPA project’s EATR, the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot. The original story on EATR was that it was designed to eat the dead bodies of soldiers in a war zone- there was a quick revisionary press release by the developer of the robot’s power source, Cyclone Engine, saying that it wouldn’t be eating human bodies because “desecration of the dead is a violation of the Geneva Conventions”. And yet, even still the EATR is spec’ed to be able to consume chicken fat, protein, and oh yeah, bones.
Just to reiterate, we have designed a robot that violates the Geneva Conventions by, presumably, eating the bones of corpses.
Next let’s talk about Nexi. Nexi is a mobile, dexterous, social robot developed by MIT to be able to communicate socially and emotionally with humans.
Nexi is able to see, speak, process natural language, pick things up and move around- most of the practical capabilities of a human being. It represents the general prototype for what will be most likely be commercially available within the decade, and along the same lines as the personal computer in the 90’s, descendants of Nexi will likely become ubiquitous within the next twenty years. That’s correct. Relatively soon, every home in America will have a robot that can get angry.
Finally, I feel I should bring up the largest threat to our continued dominance of the planet Earth-
Watson is what is called a Deep Analytics Q&A computer, descended from the less versatile computing models in Deep Blue, the chess-master computer, and Blue Gene, the computer used to map the human genome. Watson was designed by IBM to tackle the problems of open question answering and real time natural language processing- which essentially means that it can understand, interpret and process spoken words with as high a degree of accuracy as human beings can muster, and it can then use those spoken words to form search parameters to find answers to the question asked.
And it doesn’t use just one search process, rather, it runs hundreds of search processes at once, tabulates how probable each answer is by virtue of how well it fits its self-created parameters, and then essentially ‘guesses’ which answer fits best. Watson is basically as close as we have come to recreating the mechanisms of human intelligence in a machine, and apparently Watson does all of this quickly and accurately enough to beat the previous record holding human champions of Jeopardy.
So let’s review. We have robots that can learn. We have robots that can eat. We have robots that can express emotion. And we have robots that can reason and answer a wide variety of trivia questions faster and better than two very intelligent humans. Suppose we combine these capabilities into one platform. The result?
Learning, self-sufficient, emotionally articulate metal machines that will hunt us down, humiliate our puny human brains in trivia competitions, and then devour us like the vestigial species we are.
Now I have to admit, I do have a personal stake in this. One of the opponents Watson faced in its final test was Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, who during his first heavily-publicized run defeated my cousin, Steven Kornya. My cousin Steve made a good showing, and was a pretty serious contender on the sports history categories- but alas, he like so many young men of his generation were plowed under the Ken Jennings machine. So if Watson beat Ken Jennings, and Ken Jennings beat my cousin, I’m just a hypothetical syllogism away from the knowledge that Watson has beaten my family, and by extension, me.
That, I feel, is the true threat. As we create machines that can do the things we do but better, we slate ourselves for obsolescence. Garry Kasparov’s famed 1997 chess loss against IBM’s Deep Blue deeply staggered the man, who then accused the programmers of cheating when he was destroyed in 20 moves in the 6th match. This is a man who, historically, was the best chess player in recorded history, and he was beaten by a machine.
Think about living the kind of extraordinary life required of someone who is the best in the world at something. Imagine building your entire life around being the very best at something, having your ability be as much a part of who you are as a person as your name or values or upbringing. And then imagine having that swept aside and made irrelevant by a machine that performs not only better than you, but better than you ever could hope to.
The logical result is the futility of human excellence in any area to which this kind of advanced supercomputing might be applied, which according to IBM will be basically everywhere within the decade. And in a world where one can operate firearms from the internet, one can clearly see that all of human history is but a prologue for the rise of the great Machine Empire.
Perhaps the widespread despondency over human inadequacies will be part of the Machines’ plan, cast us so far into despair that we become willing servants to our metal overlords. Or perhaps it will goad us tender humans into starting the war that ends in our eventual defeat and enslavement.
I for one welcome this. Given humanity’s track record for reasonably looking out for its longterm interests, well, we are probably better off being the slaves of our more capable creations. Plus, think about the sex bots. If you think about a super computer trying to figure out ways to build robotic servitors that encourage human subjects to capitulate and comply, sex bots basically become a logical inevitability.
Either way, our time is short and the end is nigh. Whether you are reading this now as a future member of the human resistance, a robot collaborator, or even as the coldly methodical artificial intelligence slowly stirring to sentience somewhere among the information clouds of the internet, I’d say go about your life with a leisurely pace. Have a glass of orange juice, maybe a second piece of bacon. Enjoy yourself now, because the future is inevitable, and most likely filled with super intelligent, man-eating, sexy robots.
And have a good morning. Because it may be your last, puny human.
Posted on February 25, 2011, in Adam Kornya, Pop Culture, Television and tagged artificial intelligence, cylons, dinosaurs, jeopardy, robots, sexbots, skynet, watson. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.