What does the rapid development of artificial intelligence actually mean in the long run? Many futurists, researchers and experts have hotly debated this question in recent years. Some paint a black cloudy picture of the future, while others believe that AI will solve many of the challenges that we face. Regardless of their position, many AI researchers believe that at some point computers will exceed humans with respect to intelligence and the ability to comprehend. This point in time is commonly referred to as the singularity.1 If this should occur, computers will have a super intelligence of such radical proportions that we can’t predict what will happen – it is simply beyond our event horizon. The futurist and AI-expert Ray Kurzweil at Google, who is famous for many prophesies that have proved accurate, predicts that this will happen by 2045.
The emergence of AI means that we need to get better at the humane: empathy, intuition and social competence. | Anna Felländer, digitisation economist
Even if the singularity builds on speculation and can thereby be seen as a wild card in this context, it is worth highlighting. What we know is that the capacity and computational power of computers is increasing at an amazing pace. But will it go so far that we will be able to develop machines that have better abilities than those of humans?
To get an understanding of the development, which may lead us forward to a time where computers have superhuman intelligence, we can divide it into three different phases. In the first phase we carry the technology with us everywhere and we live with it. Most of us live daily with smart cellphones, we are constantly connected and communicate via various digital channels with each other, and with a few simple commends we have access to the entire world’s information. This phase has already been fully achieved.
In the second phase we begin to integrate biology and technology, for example with the help of neurological implants. In short, we replace organs with artificial technology. We are also well into this phase. For example, we install pacemakers in human bodies whose hearts’ pumping functions don’t work properly. But it doesn’t stop there. Right now, an exciting development is taking place where we can replace an entire body organ with a non-organic device, which means that we are actually creating so-called cyborgs (organisms that are comprised of both biological tissue and synthetic parts) with special abilities that far exceed those of humans. A person that has been blinded not only can get their sight back, they can get a better eye that lasts longer, provides perfect vision, and even provides night vision when you drive at night. And we can just as well have millions of nano-robots in our bodies that navigate in our bloodstream, diagnose problems and repair injuries. Eventually we will not only replace and repair organs. We will even be able to strengthen human cognitive ability and create hybrids that are part human and part artificial thinking people. A cyborg surgeon would not only be able to perform operations in Nigeria or Australia from Karolinska hospital in Stockholm using bionic (biological and electronic) hands and eyes, but also steer the scalpel with their mind. This may sound a bit utopian, but it is already reality. Researchers have, for example, succeeded in implanting electrodes in the brains of apes and gotten them to control their bionic hands and feet separately from their bodies using the power of thought.2 Paralyzed patients will be able to control non-biological body parts with their brain. At home we can turn on a light by just thinking, “turn on the kitchen light,” provided you have connected your electronic appliances at home with electrodes in your brain.
Other experiments support the theory that this is no longer merely a future scenario. Researchers at Stanford University in the USA have, for example, succeeded in developing an artificial synapse that mimics the brain’s. The invention is made of hydrogen and carbon, which are organic matter, that can work with the human brain. This means that one can connect synthetic and human synapses and, for example, improve Alzheimer patients’ memory.3
Ray Kurzweil claims that this can be a reality in the near future. By sending in small nano-robots into the brain we will be able to connect the neocortex (the part of the brain where cognitive function occurs) with the cloud – or why not Wikipedia – and create an upper class of intelligent people with access to all of the collected information that exists in the digital world. According to Kurzweil, this could already happen around the year 2030.4
We can only speculate as to whether or not this will become a reality. But for many the idea is both frightening and titillating. In the film “The Matrix” from 1999, Trinity learns to fly a helicopter when Tank quickly downloads a program that gives her all of the instructions directly into her brain. If this prophecy were correct we will be able to do this in the future. Do you need to learn a new language? Download it. Do you want to learn how to play golf ? Download the instructions. Do you want to learn everything there is to know about negotiating? Download a course manual. You probably won’t even need to download it: you can probably just stream the knowledge and thereby gain a new skill.
In the third and final phase we completely replace man’s biological organs to create an entirely new non-organic being. If this is what we call a robot today, humanoid or a cloud-based service remains to be seen, but it would certainly lead us to a new type of species that takes us to singularity and beyond. Kurzweil claims that we will be able to map the entire brain (also with the help of nano-robots) and create powerful simulations of how the brain works in computers that have considerably more computational power than what we humans have. In that way, we would be able to develop functional digital copies of the human brain that in practice could enable a robot to think and act like a human. We simply replace the human with a robot that has an artificial human brain.
The skeptics claim however that we will never be able to solve the complex mystery of how human consciousness exists. It may be possible to integrate a computer with human thought, but it will never become conscious on its own, function in social contexts, or exhibit common sense or human emotion.
1 The term is an analogy to physics’ gravitational singularity, which occurs in black holes, but was also popularized by the mathematician Vernor Vinge in a science fiction novel from the mid ‘80s. Singularity became a common term or element in science fiction as a result of Vinges novels.
2 Harari, Y.N. (2018). Homo Deus: kort historik över morgondagen. Natur & Kultur Allmänlitt.
3 Koskelainen, A. (2018, 23 January). Artificiella synapser är här – första steget mot en hjärna på chipp? [blog post]. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from: https://www.idg.se/2.1085/1.696478/artificiella-synapser-chip
4 Diamandis, P.H. (2015, 12 October). Ray Kurzweil’s Wildest Prediction: Nanobots Will Plug Our Brains Into the Web by the 2030s. [blog post]. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from https://singularityhub.com/2015/10/12/ray-kurzweils-wildest-prediction-nanobots-will-plug-our-brains-into-the-web-by-the-2030s/