I work at ValueFirst Digital Media Private Ltd. I am a Product Marketer in the Surbo Team. Surbo is Chatbot Generator Platform owned by Value First. ...Full Bio
I work at ValueFirst Digital Media Private Ltd. I am a Product Marketer in the Surbo Team. Surbo is Chatbot Generator Platform owned by Value First.
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The rise of Homo Technicans: half human and half machine
THE first the world learned of Facebook's mind-reading project was when the company posted an advert for the position of "brain-computer interface engineer". Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had talked of 'tech-mediated telepathy' as a future possibility, but this was a sign that the company was serious about pioneering a technology that might allow us to connect via the net or the cloud with other people, not through the device in our pocket, but directly from our brains. I could experience your feelings and you experience mine. Facebook is not alone in wanting to take us to a world we thought only Keanu Reeves lived in during his Matrix years. Other pioneers are exploring similar technologies. The future, according to Elon Musk, the mind behind the commercial Mars project, lies in a brain-computer interface he calls a "neural lace" - designed to augment human intelligence and thereby avoid the inevitable takeover when AIs become smarter than us - and in our "symbiosis with machines".
It's a vision that seems straight out of science fiction, but which some futurists believe is not so distant. The interface between human and machines - which some see as the possible first steps in the rise of a new species of human, Homo Technicans, perhaps - is just one of many developments that some predict within our lifetimes. Others include a massive advancement in AI so huge it would lead to what is called the singularity, the moment at which artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence; robots so advanced they take over much of our work and force humans out of the job market; intimate, even sexual relationships between humans and machines.
If you think that's far-fetched, some of that future is almost already here. In recent years enormous leaps have taken place in the development of Artificial Intelligence, such that a Google DeepMind programme which beat the human world champion at the game, Go. AI is in fact now so ubiquitous, identifying photographs in our Facebook feeds, in voice recognition assistants, that Wired Magazine declared 2016 "the year deep learning took over the internet".
It seems then, we already well into our transition from Homo Sapiens to Homo Techncians, and the pace of change, according to most futurists, is going to accelerate. Is some of this overhype? Or truly what we need to prepare for, and consider in terms of ethics?
The cyborg is already here
In some ways it's already happened - 2017 kicked off with the news that through tiny implants attached to their chests, the first humans to sense north had been created. These titanium devices were created by a company called Cyborg Nest, whose founders include the augmented human Neil Harbisson: who thanks to the antenna implanted in his skull is officially recognised as a cyborg. Across the world, already bio-hackers are conducting experiments on themselves, implanting devices from glucose monitors to LED lights.
But they are not alone. Many people who may not consider themselves to be cyborg, are already walking round with devices, from cochlear implants to implantable cardiac defibrillators and deep brain stimulators, implanted inside them for medical reasons. Last year, for the first time, brain stimulation, through implanted electrodes, made it possible for a paralysed person to experience the sensation of touch on his bionic hand.
The scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock has postulated that humans are already undergoing some "endosymbiosis with the mechanical world". He takes, as an example, his pacemaker, which connects via radio communication with the outside world. "This really bothers me, because I can see it's only a short time before my body's on the internet and receiving spam."
"We shouldn't be afraid of the cyborg," says Dr Gill Haddow of the University of Edinburgh. "The fear that we get from the term comes from fictional representations, but the everyday cyborg is actually already all around us." Haddow has been working on a Wellcome Trust funded project on what she describes as the "everyday cyborg", people who are already living with a cybernetic device attached to their hearts called the implanted cardiac defibrillator (ICD). She predicts that in the not so distant future almost all of us will have some implant. "We're living so much longer. I think by 2066 about 2 million of us are supposed to be 100. And more of us are going to need stuff in us to keep us going."
Robot master or robot slave?
Last year, historian Yuval Noah Harari predicted that AI would take over a great many jobs, creating a "useless class" of humans. He theorised: "Children alive today will face the consequences. Most of what people learn in school or in college will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40 or 50. If they want to continue to have a job, and to understand the world, and be relevant to what is happening, people will have to reinvent themselves again and again, and faster and faster." This vast new jobless class, he suggested, may find their emotional attachment and satisfaction through long hours spent on VR.
At Edinburgh University's School of Informatics, Professor Subramanian Ramamoorthy is working on building the kind of robots that, sometime in the future, he hopes, will be able to do some of the more "menial roles" in society. Such an advanced robot, he says, is still some way off. "It turns out there is a lot of underlying intelligence you need even to be in that menial role. You have to know everything that a child learns for fifteen years before they got there."
Artificial Intelligence has come a long way in recent years, with major leaps taking place through the development of "neural networks", models based around the networks in human brains, which churn through vast quantities of data, and thereby self-learn.
How close are we to creating the kind of intelligence we see in humans? Ramamoorthy thinks we still have some way to go. He believes that we are still making only baby steps towards creating the kind of cognition a child has. "They can play games, they can drive cars, but that's quite a different thing from what children are able to do. For instance, if you look at a small child, even at the age of two they might pick up concepts that they've seen maybe only once or twice and that requires creativity."
One of the hottest topics right now is "Safe AI". Recent advances in the technology, have triggered worries about the threat it might pose to humankind. What happens when it supersedes us in intelligence? Stephen Hawking has even declared, "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."
Some postulate that the moment when machines surpass humans in intelligence, may not be that far off. Ray Kurzweil, Google's resident futurist, has said that by 2027 computers will exceeded humans in intelligence, and, by 2045, "strictly biological" people will be trailing behind.
With this threat hanging, the notion that we need to be able to control AI and make it safe has become a focus for many researchers and developers. Google DeepMind, it was announced last year, is working on a kill switch for robots and other AI systems, to prevent a super-intelligent machine from overriding its stop button.
Ramamoorthy, however, is sceptical about the level of alarm raised by Hawking and others. "Certainly we should be cautious about developing these technologies. But a truly autonomous robot that can function completely without human help is still far away, as is the case for other AI systems as well."
Symbiosis with the machine: the brain-computer interface
One way of preventing AI from getting the upper hand, some believe, is by humans fusing with technology, or as Tesla founder Elon Musk has put it "symbiosis". Musk has said that artificial intelligence represented "our biggest existential threat".
"Under any rate of advancement in AI we will be left behind by a lot," he theorised, adding that, even in the most benign situation, humans would end up being more like pets or
"house cats" to the superior AI.
To this end, Musk is backing the development of a "neural lace", a term that comes from Iain M Banks's Culture Novels, and most likely to be a computer interface woven into the brain which is able to transmit data or thoughts to other devices. Some of the basic technology, an injectable, ultra-fine mesh of electronics that merges with the brain, has already been developed by researchers working with mice in Beijing.
Meanwhile, futurists like Ray Kurzweil are postulating this symbiosis is the future. By 2033, he says, we will have nanobots inside our brain connecting wirelessly with the cloud, making us smarter, funnier and sexier. The cloud will become our "brain extension".
Fears over AI may, however, be misplaced. A recent report by scientists for the US Department of Defense, declared that the technology was a long way from significant human-type intelligence. "To most computer scientists the claimed "existential threats" posed by AI seem at best uninformed."