It seems everywhere now and every day its capabilities grow exponentially. Were it science fiction, we could suspend disbelief, but no, it’s brick and mortar of today’s living space, architect of our present and, like a Mars landing spaceship, crewed by humans, powering us into new frontiers beyond the limits of imagination.
We call it Artificial Intelligence, or AI, the subset of machine learning algorithms. Prototyping the human brain, AI maps our cognitive processes, enabling a computer, computer controlled robot, or software entity to think like you and me.
AI’s prowess dwarfs the best human minds and, daily, it grows smarter still.
In 1997, the IBM computer Deep Blue defeated the world’s champion chess player.
Today, we take for granted speech recognition, robotic process automation, video surveillance, facial recognition, and what we call smart homes. It lies behind your smartphone’s Siri, or Amazon’s ability to track your consumer choices, or Google Search, speeding you to your targeted page among an electronic galaxy of several billion websites, all in micro seconds.
How many of us know that AI was instrumental in developing the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) vaccine, its algorithm capable of predicting the RNA sequence of the virus in a mere 27 seconds, or 120 times faster than previous methods?
Currently, AI machines are servile to our needs. They’re singular in their applications, their memory subject to our input. This may not always be so in our future, which may have already begun.
What’s coming is an AI that comprehends thoughts and emotions and can interact socially, AI machines, not only intelligent, but sentient and conscious.
They’ll soon earmark the new economy, with 9% of all new jobs being in the AI machine learning, and automation realm. Most AI engineer jobs currently average an annual median salary of $131,490, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s a scenario none of us will escape. In a recent New York Times interview, entrepreneur Elon Musk predicted artificial intelligence or robots would assume most human jobs in the next five years.
Fortune Magazine extends that time element to 15 years, with 40% of our current jobs being replaced by AI robots.
Custom service reps are already being replaced by FAQs to answer queries.
Bookkeeping and data entry, relics of a bygone era, have been replaced by AI and machine learning.
Going and gone are receptionists in hotels, with automatic check-ins and checkouts the order of the day.
Fast food chains will increasingly move to automated service. You push the tab, a robot fills your order, and that includes the packaging. An automatic McDonalds opened near Fort Worth, Texas, recently.
In publishing, proofreaders will become an extinct species. What with apps like Grammarly, who needs them?
Drones and robots will transform delivery services.
Shopping malls, a once ubiquitous landscape feature, are already closing doors as retail moves online, staffs are cut, orders computerized, and consumer preferences anticipated. We already know what Amazon has done to bookshops.
Taxi and bus drivers will increasingly vanish as transportation gets automated. The Los Angeles Times says that self-driving trucks could replace 1.7 million American truckers over the next ten years. What you see in the automatic transit systems of our larger airports will become standard fare.
Think medicine’s safe from AI’s inroads? Think again! Radiologists will be an endangered species, given AI’s superior ability to read images. “AI can see things the human eye can’t,” says Eric Topol of Scripps Research.
Diagnostic selfies are on the way. Never mind the dermatologist. Your app will spot any skin cancer.
Tomorrow’s economy will be powered increasingly by fewer workers as automation, fueled by AI, takes hold. The economic fallout promises to be staggering, resulting in heightened inequity and its consequent disruption of the loop of productivity, rising wages, and increased consumerism. In fact, it’s already happening, with just 5% of households responsible for 40% of spending.
Society will need restructuring, urgently so, to preempt social breakdown as the plural weight of an aging population, rising costs for education and medicine, depletion of natural resources and climate change exercise their grip.
Where is all of this taking us? Are we about to create a Frankenstein monster? Is AI destined to become sentient and even more so than ourselves?
I’m not there yet. Sentient shouldn’t be used lightly. It deals with sensory apprehension. It can be argued that some animals have this capacity.
AI, however, remains a logic construct. While it can assess our syllogistic reasoning for its fallacies, it can’t attribute emotion, the collective consequence of sensory interchange via a robust neural network, to its surveillance.
But that doesn’t dissipate the threat that AI may ultimately become too damn smart for our own good! Isaac Asimov posed the threat acutely in his 1956 short story, The Last Question, with humans creating Multilac, a super intelligent machine that ultimately subverts human control and subsumes every aspect of existence.
The creation of maverick Elon Musk’s OpenAI GPT-3 is getting a lot of hype as the best we’ve seen imitating human intelligence, if not the largest artificial neural network ever created. This is the third version to date.
Educators are in consternation over ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence bot offshoot of GPT-3, released in November 2022, with already more than a million users and currently free. ChatGPT exhibits extraordinary finesse at mirroring creative capacities of our finest human minds, despite infinitely lacking the human brain’s 100 trillion-plus synapses. Feed a few inquiries into the topic box and it spews out answers, can write an essay, summarize a report, translate languages, even compose a poem—all in seconds.
If English teachers thought Cliff Notes a bane, God help them now. As for universities, the academic integrity of your traditional thesis and dissertation is at stake. It isn’t a perfect technology. It can give silly results, but it may get better.
The bottomline is that if sentient machines are ultimately coming our way, it behooves us to inaugurate an ethical framework for their governance. As Yuval Harari warns, “Netflix tells us what to watch and Amazon tells us what to buy. Eventually within 10 or 20 or 30 years such algorithms could also tell you what to study at college and where to work and whom to marry and even whom to vote for.”
Meanwhile, high tech continues promoting machine learning to enhance profitability over public welfare. It’s a brave new world!