Machines Like Us
Every era, every generation seems to have its horrors. But none of them, past or present, equate. We are in a particularly rough patch: right-wind attitudes are moving to the forefront and the planet seems to be readying for death by human hands.
And yet science, hardly hobbled yet, moves forward. Medical science remains on a progressing trajectory. A new book recently emerged about the possibilities of harnessing very advanced artificial intelligence operatives, which are advancing exponentially, to the vast medical database that includes information from the human genome. Deep Medicine by Eric Topol proposes placing very advanced robotic cognitive processing in the clinical encounter.
Robots have always intrigued and somewhat terrified us. The idea of making the ever-advancing intelligence of computers outstrip human intelligence feels like machine weaponizing. Ian McEwan’s recent book, Machines Like Me, presents a startling example.
Mechanical replacements for humans, or at least human assistants or human mechanical capacities, have been theorized and even partially realized for hundreds of years. The first digitally operational robot, was invented by George Devol in 1954. The word robot entered the world scene in 1920 in the play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek.
The concept of robots has filtered down to the average person, and especially children, as a kind of mechanical pet that may or may not have certain utilitarian capacities — cleaning, cooking, operating vehicles, functioning as a special, wholly non-judgmental friend.
“The enhanced robot brain can employ its ever-expanding algorithms to farm vast, even infinite, amounts of data and develop novel solutions that would be impossible for even a group of brilliant humans working together.”
The concept of robots has also filtered up into ever-expanding industrial uses and even serious military deployment.
Both the charm and the terror that robots may convey have lit up movie and television screens for decades now. Animated computer graphics allows filmmakers to create robots not yet realizable but seemingly possible.
But the idea that robots may soon penetrate into our daily lives, may become adjuncts — or perhaps replacements for physicians and politicians and army generals and university professors and newspaper editors — is all a bit disturbing.
The power potential that may lie at the heart (or more aptly, the brain) of artificial intelligence is that it can draw on an infinite dataset or database — a compilation of information that could exceed the capacity of the human brain and also is not subject to the neural defensive needs to gate recall. to allow forgetting (i.e., the loss of data points). The enhanced robot brain can employ its ever-expanding algorithms to farm vast, even infinite, amounts of data and develop novel solutions that would be impossible for even a group of brilliant humans working together.
With the concurrent development of ambient sensors (devices that can see, hear, perhaps even smell and taste and feel temperature and pressure) robots can be equipped to interact with live experience joined with their superpowers of intellection.
The mechanics of movement are already advancing as industrial robotics develop more and more sophisticated hardware that allows robots to move about and physically interact with the environment.
Ultimately all these super capacities may be assembled into humanoid forms — as science fiction has forewarned — and the age of the ascension of robots will finally be upon us. Perhaps just on time, as the biologically living planet faces extinction. Robots do not need air or water or food. The electric eel has found a way to create and store its own electricity. Robots could finesse that sui generis capacity.
Robots are coming.
They will be taking over.
The question is how much, how far, and at what price.
Their major, most salient weakness is their dependence, ultimately, on electricity. Doubtless a robot will figure out a way around even that.