You can barely move in 2017 without hearing the buzzwords ‘AI’ or ‘neural networks’. It’s clear that we are hyped to be on the cusp of a great revolution. But what just what does this future hold?
We often forget that artificially intelligent machines are already ubiquitous in society: from calculators to email spam filters and Spotify’s automatically curated personalised playlists. But the AIs of the future are set to be entities with capabilities on an unprecedented scale. Today’s machines outperform humans at specific tasks, but AI thought leader Nick Bostrom envisages a future of artificially superintelligent machines (ASIs) that would be ‘much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills’. Essentially, machines that can think for themselves.
No theoretical barriers stand in the way of creating such a machine. After all, human brains are just bundles of neurons bathed in a load of chemicals that, when arranged in the correct way, produce the illusions of consciousness, free will and emotion. If we could reproduce the exact structure of the human brain down to an atomic level resolution, using transistors and software, there is really no reason that this silicon-based entity would not experience the same illusions of consciousness, free will and emotion as us carbon-based life forms.
Of course, getting to this point is no mean feat, but the hardware is already there: neurons run at 200Hz whereas the most standard microprocessors in your computer run at 2GHz (10 million times faster). Memory capabilities are many-fold greater without the space constraints of the human skull. Upload and download speeds are also incomparable (think of how long it takes you to read a book and how long it takes you to load one onto your kindle). Computers are also far higher fidelity than humans and simply don’t make mistakes, it’s always human error that produces malfunctions. It’s simply the software that we are still struggling to get right now.
Take a moment right now to consider just how crazy the world is. Back in the 1970s, a ‘minicomputer’ filled an entire building, and now everyone from 2 week old babies to kids in rural Africa have mobile phones that give them access to more information than Bill Clinton had when he was President 20 years ago. Imagine sitting on a desert island and wondering how to go about creating such a technology, it’s an awesome feat of collaboration, intellect and creativity that really boggles the mind. And we’ve only got better and better at doing awesome things. As renowned futurist/thinker/entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil puts it, the progress of the entire 20th century (from telephones and television to computers) would have been achieved in just 20 years at the rate of advancement of the year 2000. And in 2021, it will only take 7 years to experience the same amount of progress as the entire 20th century.
In fact my favourite way of thinking about the increasing rate of technological progress comes from Tim Urban’s wait but why blog in which he introduces the concept of a ‘die progress unit’ (DPU), which is how far in the future someone would have to be transported in order to actually die from the level of shock they’d experience. ‘Imagine taking a time machine back to 1750 — a time when the world was in a permanent power outage, long-distance communication meant either yelling loudly or firing a cannon in the air, and all transportation ran on hay. When you get there, you retrieve a dude, bring him to 2015, and then walk him around and watch him react to everything. It’s impossible for us to understand what it would be like for him to see shiny capsules racing by on a highway, talk to people who had been on the other side of the ocean earlier in the day, watch sports that were being played 1,000 miles away, hear a musical performance that happened 50 years ago, and play with my magical wizard rectangle that he could use to capture a real-life image or record a living moment, generate a map with a paranormal moving blue dot that shows him where he is, look at someone’s face and chat with them even though they’re on the other side of the country, and worlds of other inconceivable sorcery. This is all before you show him the internet or explain things like the International Space Station, the Large Hadron Collider, nuclear weapons, or general relativity. This experience for him wouldn’t be surprising or shocking or even mind-blowing — those words aren’t big enough. He might actually die.’ Thus, the DPU would be 250 years.
Urban then goes on to talk about how far back the 1750 guy would have to go to find someone who was sufficiently shocked by the 1750s that they might actually die from it. Another 250 years surely wouldn’t be enough, realistically he’d have to go back maybe as far as 12,000 BC before the agricultural revolution and the concept of civilisation. 1750s London to a hunter-gatherer would be pretty insane it’s safe to say. So the DPU here is more like 13,000 years. Now, the law of accelerating returns (the fact that the more advanced a society is, the faster it can progress and thus reaches an exponentially increasing rate of acceleration) means that it’s entirely possible that the DPU for present day people would only be 50 years or so i.e. one of us would only have to travel to 2070 to be sufficiently shocked by the experience (who knows, maybe there won’t even be any humans around in 2070, just AI overlords, or a nuclear wasteland).