By Stephan Talty (Smithsonian mag),
In June of 1956, A few dozen scientists and mathematicians from all around the country gathered for a meeting on the campus of Dartmouth College. Most of them settled into the red-bricked Hanover Inn, then strolled through the famously beautiful campus to the top floor of the math department, where groups of white-shirted men were already engaged in discussions of a “strange new discipline”—so new, in fact, that it didn’t even have a name. “People didn’t agree on what it was, how to do it or even what to call it,” Grace Solomonoff, the widow of one of the scientists, recalled later. The talks—on everything from cybernetics to logic theory—went on for weeks, in an atmosphere of growing excitement.
What the scientists were talking about in their sylvan hideaway was how to build a machine that could think.
The “Dartmouth workshop” kicked off the decades-long quest for artificial intelligence. In the following years, the pursuit faltered, enduring several “winters” where it seemed doomed to dead ends and baffling disappointments. But today nations and corporations are pouring billions into AI, whose recent advancements have startled even scientists working in the field. What was once a plot device in sci-fi flicks is in the process of being born.
Hedge funds are using AI to beat the stock market, Google is utilizing it to diagnose heart disease more quickly and accurately, and American Express is deploying AI bots to serve its customers online. Researchers no longer speak of just one AI, but of hundreds, each specializing in a complex task—and many of the applications are already lapping the humans that made them.
In just the last few years, “machine learning” has come to seem like the new path forward. Algorithms, freed from human programmers, are training themselves on massive data sets and producing results that have shocked even the optimists in the field. Earlier this year, two AIs—one created by the Chinese company Alibaba and the other by Microsoft—beat a team of two-legged competitors in a Stanford reading-comprehension test. The algorithms “read” a series of Wikipedia entries on things like the rise of Genghis Khan and the Apollo space program and then answered a series of questions about them more accurately than people did. One Alibaba scientist declared the victory a “milestone.”
These so-called “narrow” AIs are everywhere, embedded in your GPS systems and Amazon recommendations. But the ultimate goal is artificial general intelligence, a self-teaching system that can outperform humans across a wide range of disciplines. Some scientists believe it’s 30 years away; others talk about centuries. This AI “takeoff,” also known as the singularity, will likely see AI pull even with human intelligence and then blow past it in a matter of days. Or hours.
Once it arrives, general AI will begin taking jobs away from people, millions of jobs—as drivers, radiologists, insurance adjusters. In one possible scenario, this will lead governments to pay unemployed citizens a universal basic income, freeing them to pursue their dreams unburdened by the need to earn a living. In another, it will create staggering wealth inequalities, chaos and failed states across the globe. But the revolution will go much further. AI robots will care for the elderly—scientists at Brown University are working with Hasbro to develop a “robo-cat” that can remind its owners to take their meds and can track down their eyeglasses. AI “scientists” will solve the puzzle of dark matter; AI-enabled spacecraft will reach the asteroid belts, while on Earth the technology will tame climate change, perhaps by sending massive swarms of drones to reflect sunlight away from the oceans. Last year, Microsoft committed $50 million to its “AI for Earth” program to fight climate change.
“AIs will colonize and transform the entire cosmos,” says Juergen Schmidhuber, a pioneering computer scientist based at the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Switzerland, “and they will make it intelligent.”
But what about...us? “I do worry about a scenario where the future is AI and humans are left out of it,” says David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at New York University. “If the world is taken over by unconscious robots, that would be about as disastrous and bleak a scenario as one could imagine.” Chalmers isn’t alone. Two of the heaviest hitters of the computer age, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, have warned about AIs either destroying the planet in a frenzied pursuit of their own goals or doing away with humans by accident—or not by accident.
As I delved into the subject of AI over the past year, I started to freak out over the range of possibilities. It looked as if these machines were on their way to making the world either unbelievably cool and good or gut-wrenchingly awful. Or ending the human race altogether. As a novelist, I wanted to plot out what the AI future might actually look like, using interviews with more than a dozen futurists, philosophers, scientists, cultural psychiatrists and tech innovators. Here are my five scenarios (footnoted with commentary from the experts and me; click the blue highlighted text to read them) for the year 2065, ten years after the singularity arrives.