When you think of artificial intelligence, what is the first thing that pops into your mind? Wall-E? The Terminator? Should we be worried about machines that think?
Some of the most influential scientists and technological pioneers of this era are worried about the prospect of artificial intelligence (AI). Stephen Hawking says the advent of AI could “spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk calls it an “existential threat.” Bill Gates is “concerned.” Popular culture certainly hasn’t helped quell any fears about evil killer robots taking over the planet and enslaving humanity. From spooky classics like The Terminator to modern hits like Ex Machina, we’ve been conditioned to respond to the notion of AI with hostility and fear.
However, in the new collection of essays presented by Edge and its creator John Brockman in What to Think about Machines that Think (Harper Perennial; October 6, 2015), there’s a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to the development of AI. The book presents a compilation of short, easily digestible essays from a broad selection of different schools of thought. Despite how AI is discussed in the news, many of the thinkers approach the topic with hope rather than anxiety.
One standout essay, “Beyond the Uncanny Valley” by Joichi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, argues that giving robots the ability to think will help people stop thinking like robots. Other essays, like “Justice for Machines in an Organicist World” by philosopher Steve Fuller, take the successful integration of AI into our society as given, instead focusing on how we could guarantee human rights to sentient machines in the future. Others, still, discuss alternate forms of AI, such as extraterrestrial AI or sophisticated machines being integrated into human bodies and brains. Acclaimed British musician Brian Eno even suggests, in his essay “Just a New Fractal Detail in the Big Picture,” that humanity has been living with AI for thousands of years in the form of communities.
Despite the many cautious hopes and justifiable apprehensions held by those within and without the scientific community, only one thing seems certain: now is the time for people to start considering AI and what it could mean for us as a species in the future. Movies and books about murderous androids will always be fun, but it’s important to separate that fiction from reality —and to figure out how to live in the brave new world that has already arrived.