If it wasnâ€™t global warming, it was nuclear winter. If not mutually assured destruction, it would be disease and famine through over-population. Like it or not, we were all going to die, one way or another. This cheerful optimism about our continued survival still populates the zeitgeist, however in recent years it has adopted several new guises, all threatening our continued existence. These are all driven by the astronomical rise of our technological capabilities. As companies pour more money into the creation of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and advanced biotech, we can begin to see where mankind is going and we should ask ourselves whether humankind has a place in this new future.
â€œSiri, where can I get coffee?â€
â€œSiri, order some flowers and send my wife a messageâ€
â€œSiri, are you alive?â€
Simple artificial intelligence, the simulation of human activity within computers and machines can be found throughout 21st century living. In your phone, computer games, aircraft and space shuttles, all of these things are using a simple form of machine intelligence to reach a desired outcome based on predetermined calculation. What we have seen in recent years is the increase in the capabilities of machine intelligence. Google search results are now tailored to your every whim; your phone can now give you suggestions based on your history and preferences whilst combining the time and location data, AI is used for pattern recognition in security to match faces and analyse data. These however, are just greater iterations of dumb AI.
It's only when we get into the realm of truly smart and sentient AI, do things get a little more scary. The Busy Child scenario proposes that a sentient AI, newly awakened, will expand its power and capacity at an exponential rate, improving itself far beyond the capabilities of a human into super intelligence. It is past this point that grounded theory gives way to speculation and the opinions are divided. The first believe that this intelligence will still be at the mercy of its human engineers, as we could still â€˜pull the plugâ€™. In this instance, the intelligence would be able to provide us with the solutions to our greatest challenges, death disease, pollution, poverty and so on.
Having a super intelligent sentient being at your beck and call, fixing all of your problems seems a little unrealistic. The second camp, believe this super AI will be completely indifferent to whether we live or die, similar to how we look upon small insects. The intelligence will be so far beyond our comprehension it will seem godlike in its workings. There is no incentive for it to save us from death and disease as much as there is no reason for it to want to destroy us. Many AI theorists stress that we should not anthropomorphise such intelligence, as it would not feel and it would certainly not share any of the goals we do.
The final, more pessimistic party suggests that when this super intelligence is created, it will see that the greatest threat to its continued existence is humankind. It will have the means to wipe us out very quickly if it is capable of manufacturing bioengineered viruses for example. The list of possible ways to die will skyrocket.
Fortunately for those pessimists, the creation of a stable, self-improving AI is a long way off. The challenges inherent in creating such an entity are vast, with the process being heavily reliant on human coding and design, it looks as though we will be safe for some years to come.
Nanotechnology: the manipulation of matter on a molecular level, an area of science with a huge potential and a diverse number of uses. Kim Eric Drexler is the creator of the Grey Goo Scenario; the destruction of all organic matter on the planets surface and beyond by Nano machines called â€˜assemblersâ€™, thus forming the Grey Goo. This sounds like the work of science fiction, and for the time being, it is. However there are real concerns over the advancement of nanotech. Because the particles are so small, they have been found in the livers of test animals, absorbed directly into the skin.
They are also exceptionally hard to remove from the environment, with nanoparticles having incredible resilience.Â The applications for military are also very real. A delivery system, undetectable to the naked eye and modern instruments, able to carry with it a deadly virus is just one of the catastrophic scenarios enabled by nanotechnology. Like AI, nanotechnology has the potential to accidently or deliberately destroy us, however unlike AI, nanotechnology is being used as we speak, albeit at a rudimentary level compared to those outlined here.Â
From genetic enhancements to exoskeletons, nootropics and liposuction, humans are continuously looking to improve themselves and overcome our most difficult challenges. However, what happens when we go beyond this? When ageing and death are no longer a challenge, what will we do when time is not our most valuable resource? Will we all follow into this new and â€œimprovedâ€ life or will a divide be formed between the augmented and the â€˜pureâ€™ humans and will this divide be catastrophic?Â
As we upgrade ourselves with better bodies, better minds and genetically engineered children, we will be moving further from what it means to be human, at our present definition. This will likely cause social upheaval and a difficult political landscape. Who has the final say in what we can and cannot do with our own bodies?
The dangers inherent in human augmentation are not explicit at first, however it will be realised when governments attempt to police this area of science. If we restrict the use of augmentation, what happens when another country produces and implements augmentations that far exceed our capabilities? From an economic perspective, this could devastate a nation; suddenly its best and brightest are reduced to manual labour as their foreign counterparts become more intelligent and replace them overnight.
This article should not be a cause for fear. All of these advancements have a greater capacity for good than evil, however we cannot have one without the other. To move forward into this unknown, we need to establish governance and responsibility across all developed nations. If we are not cohesive in this, then it will become a technological arms race one of which no one is likely to win.Â