A Singular Future

Asimov considering computer dominance – and a lot more. Published by Abelard-Schuman Limited 1974. Cover photo by Sheila Yurman.

Conflict between humanity and the advanced artificial intelligences that it is in the process of creating seems unavoidable – at least if you believe some of the dystopian fiction around today.  In a previous Odyssey post, The Threatening Singularity, I talked about a potential future which might represent the salvation of the human race…or its complete demise.  Or something in between the two.  The so-called technological singularity could be the time when artificial intelligence achieves a level of sophistication that vastly exceeds anything of which the human race is currently capable.  And it could even occur within the lifetime of many who are reading this now.

The idea may be traced back to the Hungarian physicist John von Neumann in the 1950s, though it is only more recently that it, and its importance, has been treated particularly seriously.  Even so, Arthur C Clarke raised the possibility in an intriguing short story from 1963, Dial F for Frankenstein.

In this tale of just a few pages, Clarke sets a scene which is unforgettable.  Based on the technology of the time, switching on a new satellite communications network, linking all the telephone systems and connected computers in the world, has unexpected consequences.  The discussion by several engineers focuses on how this new arrangement is not only comparable with the complexity of the human brain, but actually exceeds it.  A new “supermind” has been born, and it isn’t behaving well.

As with much of Clarke’s fiction, it’s remarkably far-sighted.  But no answer to the problem is proposed in the story, which is largely how it will have to be left for now.  In practice, we may have to rely on our descendents, who might well have to face the real thing, coming up with one.

However, in his later essay The Mind of the Machine, included in his 1972 collection Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations, Clarke thought about the possible inevitability of advanced AI taking over from us, and the need to consider the potential advantages this might offer.  He quotes the mathematician and computer pioneer IJ Good: “If we build an ultraintelligent machine, we will be playing with fire.  We have played with fire before, and it helped to keep the other animals at bay.”

Indeed, it shouldn’t necessarily be all bad.  In the 2014 film Transcendence, the focus is on sentient AI being capable of building a better future for all, though there is more than enough opposition to the idea given that it will clearly be vastly superior to the human race.  Isaac Asimov also considered the subject in his essay By the Numbers from his 1973 book The Tragedy of the Moon, a collection of his articles from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction over the previous two years.

Asimov points out that our “technological society was not forced on mankind” – we have developed it because it enables us to survive in the level of comfort we now have.  And he argues that, in order to overcome the increasing problems that face us, “we must continue, extend, and intensify the computerization of society.”  Yes, there may be potential downsides for individual people, but none that humanity has not already created without the aid of computers.  His view is that, to enable our complex civilization to work properly, we need complete computerization, with machines properly programmed and geared to the functioning of society, and talking to one another across the globe to agree appropriate solutions.  Unlike anything that “the uncontrolled human being” might achieve.

Developing superior AI will have its advantages and disadvantages, but perhaps the position is summed up well by some words from Dr Good in his 1965 paper Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine, which may have originated the concept of the technological singularity: “the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make”.  How very true.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Brain Drain | Thinking For Itself

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