Is the idea of robots taking over the world just the stuff of fiction? Not according to people like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates. It is interesting to take notice of what is called Secular Eschatology. Some secular scholars take more notice of the future and its dangers than some Christian scholars. Hawking told the BBC in December 2014: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” He added: “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.”

In May 2014 Stephen Hawking with two other Professors of Physics and a Professor of Computer Science wrote an article in which they said: “So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong. If a superior alien civilisation sent us a message saying, ‘We’ll arrive in a few decades,’ would we just reply, ‘OK, call us when you get here – we’ll leave the lights on’? Probably not – but this is more or less what is happening with AI. Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history, little serious research is devoted to these issues.”

Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), said: “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.
With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.”

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, commented on Artificial Intelligence (AI): “I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”

Hawking, Musk and Gates, alongside hundreds of computer scientists and technologists, signed an Open Letter on “Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence.” The letter, referring to AI, stated: “The potential benefits are huge, since everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools AI may provide, but the eradication of disease and poverty are not unfathomable. Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls … We recommend expanded research aimed at ensuring that increasingly capable AI systems are robust and beneficial: our AI systems must do what we want them to do … we believe that research on how to make AI systems robust and beneficial is both important and timely.”

Other scientists take a different line. Professor Mark Bishop says that understanding and consciousness are fundamentally lacking in so-called ‘intelligent’ computers so “a human working in conjunction with any given AI machine will always be more powerful than that AI working on its own.” He believes this will prevent the dangers Hawking and others are warning of.

Dr Dan Handley believes that a computer could not enslave humans unless it had a desire to do so “but computers rely pure on logic, not emotion.” He thinks computers can only be taught to feign emotion, not actually to be emotional.

Professor Alan Winfield believes that the risk of computers bringing about the end of human civilisation “while not impossible, is improbable.”

Maciamo Hay, a researcher in genetics, points out that an AI is a computer which cannot act beyond the digital realm. It could modify its software (computer programmes) but not its hardware (machines). To do the latter without human involvement would require robots which could get raw materials and build machines without human assistance. He added that the computer would need to transfer its data to another machine if it was to avoid slowing down as it got older. Some researchers think it would be possible to achieve such conditions.

The power of computers

What is certain is that computers are becoming more and more powerful. Ramez Naam, Director of Program Management at Microsoft, said “It appears that a super-computer capable of simulating an entire human brain and do so as fast as a human brain should be on the market by roughly 2035 – 2040. And of course, from that point on, speedups in computing should speed up the simulation of the brain, allowing it to run faster than a biological human’s.”

Meanwhile robots are becoming more sophisticated. Kodomoroid, a Japanese android can read the news, recite tongue-twisters, speak multiple languages and interact with people. There are also ‘women’ robots with silicon skin and artificial muscles, which look eerily human.

There are robotic surgical systems. A robotic-assisted surgical platform is being developed. This would assist surgeons in “minimally invasive operations” giving them greater control and accuracy. Experts are working on robotic systems which could highlight blood vessels, nerve cells, tumours, etc., which would be difficult to see otherwise.

Another Japanese robot can understand facial expressions, gestures and tones of voice. The manufacturers claim: “For the first time in human history, we’re giving a robot a heart, emotions.” Another robot can play the violin and football and has opened the New York Stock Exchange. In 1950 Alan Turing said that a computer could be understood to be thinking if it convinced 30% of human interrogators in five-minute text conversations that it was human (the Turing Test). He predicted this would happen in about 50 years and there are controversial claims that this has been achieved.

Conclusion

Obviously the danger from Artificial Intelligence is not mentioned in Scripture. This is Secular Eschatology. Whether it will play a significant part in the future drama is unclear. But it is certainly something we ought to be aware of and to pray about.

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