Artificial intelligence permeates our everyday lives: present in our smartphone and computer “assistants”, orchestrating search engine suggestions, and dominating the scene of the NY Stock Exchange that quietly turns the cogs of the economy, the development of AI has undoubtedly revolutionized the modern world. The neural networks provide an increasingly capable and consistent alternative to the human mind in many major fields – production industries, data processing, and especially logical endeavors like chess or GO.
The rate at which AI developments have been made is astounding. The first electronic computer was built not even a century ago – a mere sliver on the timeline of human history – and yet, the application of electricity to simplify human lives has led to one of the most significant changes in the way we approach the world. CEO of Tesla and SpaceX Elon Musk has warned that artificial intelligence would eventually surpass and endanger the human capability, providing a tool for certain groups to exponentially consolidate power over the majority of people.
I don’t want to really scare you, but it was alarming how many people I talked to who are highly placed people in AI who have retreats that are sort of ‘bug out’ houses, to which they could flee if it all hits the fan.
—James Barrat, speaker and documentary filmmaker
Perhaps the most straightforward way for this to occur is the replacement of workers by automation. Many critics predict the eventual domination of industry – especially manual labor – by robots, whose physical abilities can easily exceed that of a person’s. (There are already statistics for how likely jobs are to be replaced by automation, like here.) In June 2016, CBC reported that 42% of Canadian employment was at risk for this.
Historically, jobs have been threatened whenever labor-saving technological breakthroughs were made, such as the steam engine or automatic irrigation. In the years following the Industrial Revolution, textile workers especially suffered from being unable to adapt quickly to the invention of the spinning jenny.
It doesn’t stop there, though: even skilled and highly technical jobs may face a crisis as machines that can “learn” improve to the world’s standards. Machine progress is described in a trend called “Moore’s Law”, which roughly states that the number of transistors in a circuit doubles every 2 years – and transistors will get faster as well in addition to being able to cram more inside a given space:
Where we would usually derive from history to predict the future, we are almost helpless now: something that could challenge human intelligence on our own planet has never emerged in the past. The benefits of developing AI, for now, seem to outweigh the negatives in our technologically driven world.
But fewer and fewer people know exactly how anything works, and most use computers without a thought for the circuitry inside, at the mercy of occasional system crashes or the whims of hackers. What happens when machines fully surpass our comprehension, and can perform astronomical tasks beyond our wildest dreams? This case, if any, is one where only time will tell.