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Will technology bring Transcendence or the Terminator? Ask Elon Musk
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Will technology bring Transcendence or the Terminator? Ask Elon Musk

Rogue artificial intelligence, destructive Terminator-like scenarios-- Elon Musk is worried about the future. The C...

Will technology bring Transcendence or the Terminator? Ask Elon Musk

Rogue artificial intelligence, destructive Terminator-like scenarios-- Elon Musk is worried about the future. The Canadian inventor and business magnate, who is the driving force behind Tesla Motors and the would-be Mars coloniser SpaceX as well as a co-founder of PayPal, seems wary of tomorrow even as he helps create it. He is not alone.  Futurists like Ray Kurzweil have also recognised that as technology progresses, so does its potential to do harm.

 

In a recent interview with CNBC, Musk discussed the potential dangers of Artificial Intelligence or AI, the branch of computer science that works towards achieving the functions of human-like intelligence.

I don't think — in the movie Terminator […] they didn't expect, you know, some sort of Terminator-like outcome. It is sort of like the Monty Python thing. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. […] but you have to be careful.

—Elon Musk

 

These are not the paranoid musings of a delusional conspiracy theorist, but very real concerns about the speed of technological innovation and AI in particular. A sentient, super-intelligent machine could theoretically put its own self-interest above its duty to serve humanity and use its superior intelligence and abilities against us. There is also the use of technology in war to consider. Nefarious actors could use AI and other developing fields like nanotechnology to wreak unprecedented destruction and casualties upon an enemy.

 

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Such so-called “cultural anxieties” regarding technology are often the domain of a less-informed public that is understandably cautious when it comes to science-driven change. From DDT to Chernobyl, science has a history of doing harm when the intent is to help, not to mention when the intent is purposeful destruction, as with technologies like nuclear weapons. Hopefully, positive technology will be the dominant force, yet even good will does not guarantee safeguards. Cautionary voices from within the tech sector as well as anti-technological factions and activist groups serve an important purpose, one that might stop us from running headlong into increasingly hazardous scenarios.

 

Just look at what humanity has done in terms of climate change, biodiversity, pollution, and a host of other environmental ills. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, which began less than 200 years ago in the Britain and which is only just beginning in other parts of the world, the West has managed to bring our planet to the brink of the “Sixth Great Extinction.

 

Activist, public intellectual, and MIT Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky elaborates in an interview on Truth Dig:

 

Look at species destruction. It is estimated to be at about the level of 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the earth, ended the period of the dinosaurs and wiped out a huge number of species. It is the same level today. And we are the asteroid. If anyone could see us from outer space they would be astonished. There are sectors of the global population trying to impede the global catastrophe. There are other sectors trying to accelerate it. Take a look at whom they are. Those who are trying to impede it are the ones we call backward, indigenous populations—the First Nations in Canada, the aboriginals in Australia, the tribal people in India. Who is accelerating it? The most privileged, so-called advanced, educated populations of the world.

 

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This may seem like a call-to-arms against technology, but it should be taken as a warning and a critical analysis of a world system that uses technology for short-term profit and with little concern for the future or the common good of people and the planet. It may be a more realistic perspective than that of positive futurists like Kurzweil and inventors like Musk, who hope for technological innovations that will save humanity from its own self-destruction, whether they come in the form of expensive electric cars, colonies on Mars, or cyborgs.

 

Is the future of human evolution a technology-facilitated digital immortality in which we transcend the boundaries of organic life and leave behind — or fix — a dying planet? Will Artificial Intelligence evolve beyond us and leave us behind, as in  Her, or will it try to kill us, as in The Terminator? Whatever happens, I hope there will be a Hollywood movie to get us used to the idea.

 

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The new film Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, explores something called the Singularity, the theory of a point in time when we become post-human. It is the event when all aspects of humanity evolve or change at an inconceivable rate. Ray Kurzweil wrote an entire book (and film) about it. If this new stage of evolution ever happens, we can expect that life will be prohibitively expensive for most people outside of Elon Musk’s tax bracket. Perhaps that’s just the motivation we need to get off our asses and start making the big bucks?

 

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