For a few billion people around the world, Christmas is the most important and relished holiday of the year. It's the day with the most gift-giving, the most family get-togethers, the most religious activities, and the most colorful fairy tales that children and adults almost universally embrace with sacred fervor. For many nations, no other day comes close to being as special. For this reason, it seems almost unimaginable that another day -- especially an unknown one looming on the horizon -- will soon unseat Christmas as the most important day in the world. Nonetheless, for humanity, the course is set. The birth of an artificial intelligence equal or greater than that of human intelligence is coming. It's called AI Day. And once it arrives, it will rapidly usher in a new age.
For decades, the concept of a man-made intelligence matching or surpassing our own -- technically called AGI (artificial general intelligence) or Strong AI -- has been steeped in science fiction. Upon hearing the term AI, many people immediately think of the sentient computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece film 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, what most people fail to grasp is that once AI becomes self-aware and joins with the internet, it could grow its intelligence thousands of times in just mere days, perhaps hours. Frankly, it could quickly surpass all measurements of intelligence that humans are even capable of monitoring and recognizing.
"I think that Ray Kurzweil's estimate that we will achieve human-level Artificial General Intelligence by around 2029 is a reasonable guesstimate," says Dr. Ben Goertzel.
Originally a math PhD, Goertzel is now a multidisciplinary scientist, author, and entrepreneur. He currently serves as chief scientist of Hong Kong financial firm Aidyia Holdings, chairman of the Artificial General Intelligence Society, and leader of the OpenCog AGI project.
"It could take longer than 2029," Goertzel continues, "if economic troubles prevail or technical problems prove thornier than anticipated. On the other hand, I also think a concerted and well-funded effort by the right people could make it happen before 2020."
Some religious people, anti-transhumanists, and neo-Luddites complain that an advanced AI will rapidly destroy human civilization. In my novel The Transhumanist Wager, the evangelical antagonist philosophizes that the first AI will naturally evolve into the Antichrist and bring Armageddon. Most scientists, technologists, and artificial intelligence experts find those worries laughable. Most of them think that AI will usher in a new age of scientific discovery, medical advancement, and technological sophistication only imagined before in science fiction. Some philosophers and futurists think that within the first few years of advanced AI appearing, it will expand learning so far that all important science, technology, and engineering texts will need to be completely rewritten.
The challenge of the human species is to not let this kind of AI get beyond our controls; to have adequate safety measures and kill-switches built in. Such measures would not be dissimilar from how civilization delicately handles nuclear weaponry, which some political experts believe have staved off world wars in the last half-century.
The human race's other challenge is how to merge directly with AI, to discover the technology and build apparatuses to connect our brain's neural networks directly into such an intelligent machine.
Regardless what happens in the future, it's safe to say AI will not be an entity speaking to us in hackneyed parables, or telling us to pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands if we sin. It probably also won't threaten us with a hopeless fiery hell of eternal punishment for our lack of faith. It's far more likely the greatest tool our species has ever created will tell us how to end world poverty with inventive technologies, how to best fix the Earth of the environmental degradation we've caused, and how to heal ourselves of all disease and live indefinitely via radical science. Sure, there will be risks in keeping AI our friend and ally, but there will be even greater rewards in harnessing it and using it to advance civilization.
One thing is for sure, to the human species, the birth of an advanced artificial intelligence will become far more important than the birth of Christ. Christmas, if it survives at all, will be relegated to just another commercial and cultural holiday that superstores and big business thrive on. Meanwhile, reasonable people will celebrate AI Day, the real moment in history the savior of civilization was born.