If we listen to Elon Musk, the visionary tycoon who founded PayPal, the electric vehicle and battery company Tesla and the private space corporation SpaceX, humanity faces a new and formidable threat which is artificial intelligence (AI). “It’s like those stories where someone summons the demon. There’s always a guy with a pentacle and holy water convinced that the demon will be able to control him and of course it doesn’t work,” he says.
The heavyweights of the technology sector are betting that this concern stems heavily on money. Take for instance Google, Google acquired the company DeepMind, a company that specializes in the development of neural networks in which Musk has already invested. The search giant works on a computer system capable of watching a video and distinguishing the difference between a human face form from a dog, a person who is skating or a sleeping cat...And all this on its own without anyone having previously tagged the file. The investment in artificial intelligence is so immense that today we can enjoy digital assistants that facilitate many day to day tasks, as is the case in Echo of Amazon.The idea is that after feeding the device “millions of recordings” the device begins to “learn” so to speak.
IBM is fine-tuning its Watson supercomputer, which defeated the human championship of the US ‘Jeopardy!’ quiz, in 2011. His intention is to improve the cognitive functions of the ingenuity and test its capabilities for medical diagnostics, personality analysis and real-time translations.
Facebook engineers are not far behind as they have devised an algorithm that allows a face to be recognized successfully 97% of the time.
Musk says things are moving too fast and that’s why AI is a technology that can be as dangerous as nuclear briefcases. Amidst the chorus of AI doomsayers is the voice of the British philosopher Nick Bostrom of Oxford University, who compares our fate with that of horses, when they were replaced by cars and tractors.
In 1915 there were about twenty-six million horses in the United States. In the 1950s there were only two million left. Horses were slaughtered to be sold as dog food. For Bostron, AI poses an existential risk to humanity comparable to the impact of a large asteroid or nuclear holocaust. All of this, of course, as long as we can build thinking computers. But what exactly does this mean?
The future predicted by fiction
You might think that the concept of artificial intelligence is a term that’s only recently become a buzzword bit it’s not as recent as it seems. More than seventy years have passed since the time of Alan Turing- who is considered the father of the term- with the construction of his Bombe device, which made it possible to decipher the codes of the German machine Enigma. At one point in the film “The Imitation Game’ (Morten Tyldum, 2014) in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays the famous mathematician, a detective asks him: ‘Will machines be able to ever think like humans? To which he replies: ‘Most people think not’.
The problem in this scenario is that he’s asking a stupid question. Of course machines can’t think like people, they are fundamentally different and so they think differently. The question is, ‘just because something is different, does that mean it can’t can’t think? The detective then asks him about the title of his article, “The Imitation Game’. To which Turing responds, “It’s a game, a test to determine whether someone is a human being or a machine”. There’s a general theme that is followed. A judge asks, and depending on the answers, decides whether he is talking to a person or a machine. The scene may be invented but its content is real. It exists!
AI is hyped up thanks to literature and cinema but we wonder what is the real degree of progress when it comes to AI? Years ago, I was at the Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh, USA in one of the branches of this discipline. At that time, I was part of a TVE team that collected the latest techno-scientific advantages in a popular series called 22.Mil. I must admit: I was left disappointed because of the image of robotics that was instilled in us by science fiction.
The gadgets they had there were like pots and pans in the hands of cowboy engineers and looked like they had come out of a freaky garage. These gadgets were so fickle they broke down at the slightest discomfort. There they told me about Florence, a robot nurse who was going to revolutionize geriatrics. In reality, it was a sort of barrel with a “head” to which they had glued eyes and silicone lips to draw a smile.
Florence had a built-in television camera and monitor and her batteries were running low. She certainly didn’t understand what we were saying and everything she said had to be scheduled in advance, so an engineer worked on her piece by piece to get her out into the hallways and to give us a welcome message.
Before going to the Robotics Institute I had read a lot about what they were doing in Pittsburg, especially Xavier, a robot who knew where he was going, a revolution. But faced with reality, it was nothing more than another barrel with wheels that moved through the halls of the institute thanks to a map he had installed in his memory. He would stop in front of the stairs to avoid killing himself and would apparently burst into different rooms to tell dirty jokes.
That morning, I saw Xavier being dragged away… An image I will never forget. He was the catacombs of robotics! I went to the office of Hans Moravec, one of the most famous visionaries but everything he said was hard to believe.
Moravec was convinced that in fifty years androids would displace humans. For more than an hour, he talked non-stop about the evolution of these devices and their growing intelligence, thanks to the advancement of microprocessors and their ability to handle more and more information. It was a captivating talk. The evolution of the machines was going to be unstoppable. The Austrian-born scientists concluded his talk by saying “the time has come for us to leave”.
Moravec left the institute to found a company of industrial robots with 3D vision. Previously, he had shown me on his computer an image where you could see chairs and tables that look pixelated. How could the machine know what was what ?In that summer of 1999, Moravec said he was fascinated by a new internet search engine, the smartest and best designed. That was the first time I heard about Google.
In 2014, Google bought an AI company from Musk and has developed the first autonomous car, which has already travelled a couple of million kilometres without a driver, and this is the same system that differentiates cats from people on YouTube. The world is literally invaded by unimaginable amounts of information circulation on the web and computing capacity is steadily increasing. But do we really have a reason to fear that a machine will ever think like us?
Ramoón Lopez de Mantarás, director of the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the CSIC, is one of the most recognized Spanish experts in robotics and AI believes that machines will never think like us, he goes on to say “ I don’t know what will happen in hundreds of years, but all this talk about singularity, transcendence, that there will be machines with consciousness and improved qualities with respect to human intelligence in a matter of thirty of forty years does not make sense… I have never seen a scientific argument to support it.”
Lopez de Mantarás' point of view fits perfectly with what I felt so many years ago during my frustrating visit to Pittsburgh. The world has changed a lot since then, but the truth is that there still isn’t a glimpse of the machines that will end up being so aware of themselves to be able to unleash a universal catastrophe, as in the Terminator saga films suggest.
He disagrees with gurus like futurologist Raymond Kurweil, who to this day works at Google’s Engineering division.
Like Moravec, he is convinced that during this century, robots will be able to pass the Turing test, even before 2029. Well, this wouldn’t be the first time that one of his predictions would ring true.
In the late 1980s, Kurzweil claimed that by 1998 a computer would beat a world chess champion: it happened in 1996, when Gari Kasparov lost a game against IBM Deep Blue software. In those years, he also imagined that the Internet, then a network relegated to academic institutions, would spread throughout the world. Now he claims that by 2045 computers will be far more powerful than all of Earth's human brains put together.
He is a very media oriented person,' concedes Lopez de Mantarás, but there is nothing scientific behind it.
Marvin Minsky, co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, awarded by the BBVA Foundation, believes that machines are as intelligent as human beings will ever be. However, how long this takes will depend on whether you work on the right problems and money,' says Minsky.
“He’s an enfant terrible,” says López de Mantarás, who was at the congress MIT held in his honor.
Minsky thinks that the great advances in this field were made between the 1960s and 1980s, and then all ideas regarding AI in its general sense were abandoned. So, what would remain in the current panorama is specialization, machines that are extraordinary at playing chess, but do not know anything about the ladies or the Parcheesi. “Specialised AI is good business, and I am in favour of it. Of course. It's what artificial intelligence really is today,” says Lopez de Mantarás.
General research in AI is disappearing. In this data-flooded world, this technology is completely different. Google's stand-alone car or IBM's Watson supercomputer analyze terabytes of information to make the right decisions. However, they don't know how to explain how they got there. In other words, when the system spits out its answer, it is unable to answer the question, 'Why? We have given up the why and have kept the what,' lamented Perez de Mantarás.
For example, a few years ago, an expert system that detected that the patient suffered from pneumonia could justify that the diagnosis was based on the patient’s history and the cultures taken, but now software as complex as Watson can not do this. It simply draws a conclusion from the overwhelming amount of data in handles, but offers no reasoning behind it. This creates problems of user acceptance,’says Perez de Manrtarás.
Let's look at the film 'Yo, robot' (Alex Proyas, 2004): the streets are full of humanoids who take the groceries, serve drinks, give out hot dogs... If we forget for a moment the fantastic agility they show and the general intelligence they treasure, what would we have left? It is clear: an army of specialists.
The drones, a manifestation of this trend
The U.S Air Force maintains more than 8,000 of these aircrafts to combat terrorism, according to the Brooking Institution. In their operations, they have already killed more than 2,500 people.
Business models film and investigate anything. For example, some are equipped with infrared sensors and some can detect which plants are sick or are attacked by parasites.
So, it’s possible to devise an a la carte fumigation plan. Others help control poaching and provide clues to biologists who study bird flights and trajectories- there are all kinds. The largest of them all was the Eitan, that was made in Israel has a wingspan of 26m, almost like a Boeing 737. In contrast,is the tiny 16cm Nano Hummingbird, developed with support from the U.S Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), could pass for a hummingbird. Robots have literally taken off for freedom, even though it’s under human control.
Among the robotic fauna that remains on land,we find the Roomba, a small semi-autonomous vacuum cleaner in the shape of a disc, devised by iRobot, that has become a commercial success. The PackBot, devised by the same firm, a military vault equipped with a robotic arm capable of handling bombs to inspect places contaminated by radioactivity. The TUG, devised by Aethon, looks like a kind of small table with wheels and sensors. Thanks to the latter, he moves smoothly through the corridors of some U.S. hospitals to carry medicines and other supplies.