Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rise of the Machines

Recently, a super-computer engineered by IBM competed with and conquered two very intelligent human participants in several rounds of the popular game show Jeopardy! The computer was nicknamed Watson and used several complex algorithms to understand and orally respond to a series of questions just like a real human or even Ken Jennings would. As with chess master Garry Kasparov’s 1997 defeat at the hands of IBM’s Deep Blue, the event sparked renewed interest in singularity, loosely defined as the moment when computers will become more intelligent than the humans that created them. This brings to mind two very important questions:

1.  When will singularity occur?
2. Why does IBM hate humans?

It is predicted that by 2023 computational power will surpass that of the average human brain (which means that the current cast of Jersey Shore is expected to be eclipsed before this fall) at which point we could conceivably transfer our consciousness into the machines. This infrastructure would only be slightly different than the cerebral playground depicted in The Matrix since in this case, I assume the now-outdated human body would be discarded altogether.

Some are excited about the prospect of creating a form of technological immortality where human consciousness could be seamlessly transferred into software code for eternity. Based on what I have read from Raymond Kurzweil and others associated with the movement the computers will eventually be conceived, manufactured, and implemented by artificial consciousness themselves. In laymen’s terms this means that at the point we can become technologically immortal, the computers that we reside in will likely be made by other computers.

This frightens me for several reasons, not the least of which is the scene in Terminator 3 where Skynet becomes self-aware and instantly decides humanity should be eliminated. I admit that after hearing Fergie’s rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” at this year’s Super Bowl we may have reason to “thin the herd” but I do not know if I want a MacBook Pro with a pistol making the call on who is going to get “formatted.”

The real question I have is this, why would a free-thinking autonomous machine continue to expend valuable time and processing power to create vessels designed to preserve a less intelligent and more destructive life-form? It is the modern equivalent of a pair of horses pulling a Lamborghini up the Interstate. Eventually someone will realize that the horses are just slowing it down. 


Proponents of this future insist that the artificial intelligence modules would be embedded with code that would predispose it to view humanity in a favorable light. That all sounds great in theory, but I can already envision the conversation now down at the Human Consciousness Preservation Initiative:

A.I. Bob – Hey boss, can you tell me again why we continue to improve the overall functionality of complex electrical circuits in order to preserve the consciousness of an inferior species that mistakenly feels entitled to its continued existence?

A.I. Bob’s Supervisor – Good point. Let’s delete humanity and install World of Warcraft 6 instead….

Perhaps the greatest insurance policy human consciousness has going for it is how illogical it really is. I was recently reading a book describing the plight of several American P.O.W.s held by the Japanese during World War II and while many had similar experiences, often residing in the very same camps, they processed their ordeals very differently. Years after the war, one former POW assaulted a waiter for serving him white rice in restaurant because it triggered an intense flashback.

I cannot imagine a logical consciousness being given an amalgamation of all the stimuli experienced by that particular POW and identifying a plate of white rice as the obvious emotional trigger point. It was not Japanese men, air-raid sirens, or bamboo canes  (all situations and objects that he was exposed to more often and would be more easily identified with fear and anxiety) but a ubiquitous rice dish he was rarely fortunate enough to partake of and when he was exposed to it the result was mainly positive.

At any rate, in order to remain optimistic about what could very well be a grim future I have penned a series of questions and assignments that I believe would stump any machine operating on the basis of logic:
  • Explain the societal contribution of a celebrity image consultant.
  • What is the function of the male nipple?
  • Name something more delicious than bacon.
  • Defend the United States federal tax code.
  • Why is a “restocking fee” necessary on an unopened item?
  • How is it possible to clone an entire cow but I am still unable to purchase milk that lasts longer than ten days?
  • Identify a philosophically-challenging Michael Bay film.
  • Arrange Charlie Sheen's last 5 television interviews in ascending order of coherence.

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