Sunday, March 16, 2014

National Wormhole Week

In honor of National Wormhole Week, March 10-16, I have been asked to post my thoughts on a science breakthrough that can potentially bring great advances to humankind, but that also brings great perils. There are so many that fit into this category, but one obvious example that stands out for me is artificial intelligence. Far from being science fiction, we are currently well into the era of AI as it is called, and we see the advances in everything from medicine to transportation and commerce. AI is the creation of machines that mimic human intelligence. Its proponents base their work on the premise that human intelligence is a property that is both knowable and able to be replicated. Immediately I have a problem with that as a writer, because I believe, and it's just my hunch, I'll admit, that human intelligence is essentially and at it's heart unknowable, and the logical premise to this hunch, quite conveniently, is that artists can come as close as scientists to replicating its effects or even its benefits. But humans have been trying to make intelligent machines since the dawn of civilization, and it's a human dream to be able to create a prototype of oneself that can be made to carry out work, essentially a mechanical slave. This propensity to create labor saving devices has given us everything from the plow to the computer and is responsible for civilization itself.

Artificial intelligence in its modern form came into being in the 1950s and some early successes were computer programs that could recognize language and solve problems in algebra. Given increases in computer strength, AI developers have continued to slowly make gains in the ensuing decades, including the computer. Deep Blue, that has beaten the world's best human chess players. But mimic human intelligence? Come on. You might come close, but never quite the same. The parallel processing abilities of our neural network have yet to be mapped, and even when we think we've got it down on paper (or on a screen), there will be quantum effects at the deepest levels of thought that will be essentially unknowable.

But the scary thing is there are quite a number of people who are willing and ready to jump off the deep end of AI into human-computer interfaces that we can see right now with Google Glass for instance, that for me carry some frightening implications. One classic movie, Stanley Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey, made the runaway evil computer monster that turns on its creators, Hal, a forever recognizable symbol of the hubris of this sort of work, but for me a more catastrophic implication is the way humans are so willing to turn themselves into something less than what we are for the sake of some potential labor-saving or efficiency advantage. Now of course it's hard to draw the line and say beyond this you have transgressed. I would not want to give up the calculator, for example, or God forbid return to the days when you had to go to the public library to find information about Tyrannosaurus Rex or Kurdistan instead of googling it. Yes, we all love that verb, don't we.

Anyway, at the bottom of this page is a list of the other blogs that are taking part in the Wormfest. Go and check out some other science breakthroughs with a potential double-edge.
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