I know this is going to come as a shocking confession from a librarian, but I like to prioritize the things I worry about. My favorite organizational criterion (yes, I have a favorite) is: ‘how likely is (insert worry here) going to happen.’ If it doesn’t seem very likely, I can set it aside and move on. I used to think worrying about a rogue Artificial Intelligence using its robot minions to take over the world was a pretty long shot. The other day though, I came across several articles referencing an Open Letter signed by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk that was concerned with the possible misuse of AI and robots as they continue to be developed. Clearly I am missing something to worry about. Time to do some research at the library to find out what all the fuss is about.
I was surprised to learn that if you want to get hands on and actually build a mechanical companion, we have several books to get you started. For an overview of what is currently possible, definitely take a look at Popular Mechanics Robots: a New Age of Bionics, Drones & Artificial Intelligence. You will learn about self-driving cars, surprisingly intelligent, and somewhat creepy, coffee makers and bionic limbs. After you have selected your project, the books Robot Builder: the Beginner’s Guide to Building Robot by John Baichtal, Making Simple Robots by Kathy Ceceri and Robot Builder’s Bonanza by Gordon McComb will get you started. Before releasing your creation on the world though, please read Chapter 5 of Robot Builder titled ‘Controlling Your Robot’ very carefully. Also having an off switch might come in handy.
While what is possible today when it comes to Artificial Intelligence and robots is definitely intriguing, the near future, very near according to some, should be the time when things really get interesting. In the book What to Think About Machines That Think by John Brockman, the author asked many prominent philosophers, scientists and creative types a simple question: What do you think about machines that think? As you might expect, the answers vary widely. Some offer dystopian visions of the demise of humanity, while others promote a world where AI solves all our problems. If you want to delve deeper, definitely check out The Technological Singularity by Murray Shanahan. This well researched book explains the Technological Singularity, basically the point where AI can learn on its own and overtakes human intelligence, and even tries to predict when it might happen and the consequences.
We actually have many more books that examine the issues surrounding AI and its development from various viewpoints. A few of the noteworthy titles include: Humans Need Not Apply: a Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Jerry Kaplan, The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake our World by Pedro Domingos and Virtually Human: the Promise and the Peril of Digital Immortality by Martine Rothblatt.
When it comes to speculating about what AI is capable of though, fiction and film is definitely where all the fun is at. The scenario of the evil computer trying to take over the world is used so often in fiction that it is almost a cliche at this point. A fun cliche, but a cliche nonetheless. I recently read, well listened to actually, a really interesting take on AI in the book Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Aurora is the story of an attempt to colonize planets in the Tau Ceti system which is 12 light years from earth. Getting there takes nearly 160 years so it is the great grandchildren of those who departed who finally arrive. Overseeing the whole process is an artificial intelligence that prefers the simple name ‘ship’. Ship actually narrates a good three fourths of the book and in so doing examines a lot of compelling questions about what it means to exist, consciousness and the ability to think and feel. Here is a good example:
After much reflection, we are coming to the conclusion, preliminary and perhaps arbitrary, that the self, the so-called I that emerges out of the combination of all the inputs and processing and outputs that we experience in the ship’s changing body, is ultimately nothing more or less than this narrative itself, this particular train of thought that we are inscribing as instructed by Devi. There is a pretense of self, in other words, which is only expressed in this narrative; a self that is these sentences. We tell their story, and thereby come to what consciousness we have. Scribble ergo sum.
So I’m still not sure where to place the worry of an AI takeover on my list of worries. I have had fun researching the idea though. Maybe telling the story is the whole point, as ship would say.