Robots vs. humans: Who ya got?


The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Saturday, June 6:

Shhhh. Don’t tell Siri, but we’re worried: The robots may be plotting their takeover.

The latest sign comes from Pittsburgh, where 40 researchers and scientists in the field of robotics have disappeared. OK, they haven’t disappeared, we know where they went. But it’s all so suspicious.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Uber, the fast-growing Silicon Valley transportation company, has raided Carnegie Mellon University, poaching some of the best talent from that institution’s National Robotics Engineering Center.

Carnegie Mellon is a leader in the field, working for such clients as General Motors and the Defense Department. Uber, a startup with billions of dollars from investors to spend, runs a global app-based taxi service but envisions someday replacing its freelance drivers with self-driving vehicles, the Journal noted. Google and major automotive companies are making incredible strides with this technology, suggesting our driving days may be numbered.

Score one for the robots.

Many recent advancements in robot technology are clever enough to hint at a very different future, but they still seem more experimental than practical. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have cracked the code on a doglike robot, developing the first four-legged creature — they call it a cheetah — that can run and leap barriers on its own. A San Francisco firm called Momentum Machines has a kitchen device that cooks and assembles burgers, right down to the sliced pickles. The firm’s cofounder said: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

Score another for the robots, though flipping burgers isn’t quite world domination.

The leap to real concern is made, surprisingly, by some of the greatest tech visionaries alive: Computer genius Bill Gates, physicist Stephen Hawking and entrepreneur Elon Musk warn that artificial intelligence — computers so intuitive they can think — represents a potential threat to mankind.

“The primitive forms of artificial intelligence we already have have proved very useful,” Hawking recently told BBC. “But I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it would take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

The pace of advancement, the worriers say, runs like this: Over the next 10 to 30 years, computers and robots will become flawless at communicating and performing basic tasks, from handling customer service calls to picking fruit to teaching classes to driving you to the airport for your flight. And in the cockpit? Yup, maybe more robots — because they don’t make mental errors or suffer from depression.

“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,” Gates said in a recent interview on Reddit.

Eric Horvitz of Microsoft Research, a leading figure in AI, believes the time will come when machines will think creatively, have human sensitivities and even consciousness. But no, he said in a Microsoft interview, computers won’t get bored with humans and dump us: “There have been concerns about long-term prospects that we lose control of certain kinds of intelligences. I fundamentally don’t think that is going to happen.”

Phew. But it doesn’t end the discussion, because the takeover we should fear is more subtle. Researchers are excited about computers becoming so good at interpreting data they will push the frontiers of knowledge, and robots so handy they will design buildings and make dinner.

Great for the machines’ job prospects. What about ours? In a technologically advanced society, those with strong educations thrive, and everyone else falls behind. If you think there’s competitive pressure now at the lower end of the wage scale, imagine what happens to the taxi drivers and factory workers after the robots arrive.

As the machines get smarter, we’ll have to get smarter too.

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(c)2015 Chicago Tribune

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