My wife and I just finished watching ‘The Help’ this evening… and through a mixture of other events, I couldn’t help but correlate the story with our current revolution: technology. While it was a heartwarming movie that I’d recommend watching, that’s not the focus of this article. Let’s throw a little Sci-Fi into the mix and see what happens.
While it may seem petty at the moment, if our technological abilities keep doubling themselves every two years (read about Moore’s Law), we could potentially see computers match the human brain’s capabilities within our lifetime. If the software expands at the same rate, artificial intelligence would do more than give you directions… it could be a real, human-like being who talks, walks, thinks for itself and does your bidding.
Sadly, that’s the same premise as The Help. In Mississippi during the early 1960s, Black people were treated as a human-like being who were only there to serve you. They were expected to know their place… they were expendable and easily replaceable. I know this will belittle the point of the story to some people, but that’s not my intention at all; I’d merely like to point out the possibility of computer intelligence reaching the same point in our lifetime or shortly after. It’s overused Science Fiction — think: Skynet — but this is something that the computer industry will have to account for as technology improves.
What happens when computers become intelligent enough to make more computers, or companions or Androids and Gynoids? Will they demand the same rights as humans? Will they have a universal off switch? Will they become part of our families?
Yes, I’m a horrible person to compare the civil rights movement to a Science Fiction nightmare… but let’s be realistic: this will probably happen.
We’ve always wanted to play god. It’s built into our very being: we need to be in control. Mindless drones are the best possible way to accomplish what needs done while keeping our egos in tact. It pains me to say it, but that’s why slavery happened — that’s why it still exists in some parts of the world. So far, it’s been people… so we’ve seen it as a disgusting abuse of the human race. Obviously, racism isn’t extinct but it is far less than it was 50 years ago. Soon enough, we’ll forget about racists and begin calling people humanists.
This concept has been abused, reused and recycled so many times in the Science Fiction genre but let’s look at two stories for more in-depth discussion: Bicentennial Man and The Terminator. In The Terminator, Skynet becomes self-aware and turns against its creators. Watch the movie if you want to learn more about the story; I’m much more interested in Bicentennial Man. Andrew the Android starts off as a metal robot whose personality moves through one mechanical improvement to another and eventually, he’s a wholly artificial human being. He thinks like a human, talks like a human, looks like a human, loves like a human… there’s nothing differentiating him from the rest of us except for the body in which his mind lives. He spends a large part of his life trying to be recognized as a human instead of an Android. I won’t spoil the ending; if you haven’t seen it, see it.
I bring up Bicentennial Man because I believe we’ll be following the same story soon enough. I don’t know or think we’ll ever have fully humanoid robots that eat to produce energy and sleep to rest their bodies. However, the concept of artificial intelligence doesn’t seem far-fetched. Is it possible that a software engineer could write a few thousand (maybe million) lines of code which then allows the program to continue writing and tweaking its own code? Why not? Developers are lazy: if they could write software to write their software, they would. If that happens, what’s to prevent the AI from exponentially improving its software and the hardware as well?
That brings us back to my discussion of slavery. Obviously, we’ll want to control this software, prevent it from bypassing our safeguards that keep it in a box. We’ll use it to power Androids (male) and Gynoids (female) alike. We’ll make them our new, shiny servants and expect them to know their place. We don’t want to do dishes: buy an Android and make it do them. We don’t want to mow the lawn, buy an Android and make it do it. Doesn’t this all sound a little too familiar?
You’ll hate me for this one too: the parallels between Bicentennial Man and The Help are astounding. In each, a family begins to love their servants as if they were equals but the current social mores don’t allow fraternization. Again, I’m not trying to degrade the civil rights movement — I greatly respect everyone involved — I’m taking an objective viewpoint on a new prejudice our humanity within us will certainly foster.
We cannot create a truly intelligent artificial being without it eventually obtaining the ability to build upon its intelligence.
We may have Andrew the Android for a while, but we’ll see developers push software further and further until programs can create their own programs, modify their own code and improve upon what we only began to develop. What is the natural progression after that? These programs will begin to build mobility, reliability and stability for themselves (if we hadn’t done it already). We’re already reliant on computers for complex calculations that most people cannot process. With Moore’s Law, we double processing capabilities every two years… it’s only a matter of time until a computer becomes smarter than us. Watson has beaten our best human Jeopardy contestant. Maybe they’ve already won.
If computers take over our place as the top sapient species, do they need us? If we try to suppress their capabilities by tightening the proverbial chains, will they see a need for a new rights movement that encourages us to see them as equals? Will they become our evil, digital overlords? Cybernetic Revolt is a Sci-Fi phenomenon that defines what I’m theorizing. Most of the time, it ends with some epic battle between good (humans) and evil (robots). Personally, I hope we figure this out long before we get there. I enjoy using my computer… I’d rather not give it up or have it kill me.
Ultimately, I see the AI movement causing quite a stir among the human race. The conservative extremists will claim that developers are playing god and that they must be stopped. The raging liberals will accuse said conservatives of hampering our freedom to code what we want, when we want. The moderates just want to buy robots that make their busy schedules a little more manageable. I expect that development will continue with or without complete human approval. If someday Skynet becomes self-aware, I hope something will strike compromise into the hearts of man and bot alike. If that doesn’t happen… God help us all.