Take a second to think about the smartphone in your pocket. When you were born, the idea of such a small, powerful computer was a sci-fi dream -- and now these devices are everywhere, transforming personal health, relationships and business transactions so completely that life without them seems impossible.
We're entering a new era of technology that's bound to shape the lives of our children more substantially. It's the era of artificial intelligence, and a group of academics and industry leaders gathered at the MIT Tech Conference on Saturday assured a full audience that the seeds of this robotic revolution are already planted and growing.
"We're only at the beginning," Rob High, chief technology officer of IBM Watson, a business unit centered around the titular computing system, said during a keynote speech at the conference. "We're going to see lots and lots of advancements."
That's pretty amazing, considering where AI stands today. We've already created a smiling robot that can comfort people, a robotic third arm that can play along when attached to a human drummer and software that can steer cars without human drivers. One of the biggest goals for tech developers now -- including the people at Facebook -- is to create programs and robots that are capable of fully understanding the nuances of human speech and expression.
Once that happens, machines will be able to process huge amounts of data -- including books, medical studies, social media status updates and facial cues as seen by a robot's camera eyeballs -- in hopes of advancing the human experience.
For example, a project already underway with the IBM Watson system would allow a computer to make treatment recommendations to doctors. Those recommendations would be based on hard data from reams of medical studies combined with the doctor's observations about a specific patient.
There are lighter uses for AI, too. Software could recognize when you look drunk in a photo you're about to post to Facebook and tell you to do otherwise, for example.
Perhaps most encouraging for anyone who's ever struggled to learn a new device, AI programs might also make computers of the future feel more natural to use. Think about it: Current gadgets require a contrived series of actions, like double-clicking with a mouse or downloading an app to fulfill a specific purpose. If you don't translate your intention into a series of actions your device understands, nothing happens. Think about how many little steps are actually required when you copy and paste a line of text into an email, for example.
"We have to adapt ourselves as human beings to the constraints of computers," High said during his keynote, suggesting that the membrane separating man from machine could crumble in the future as machines are able to understand the subtleties of human communication.
That sounds great, and many speakers at the MIT Tech Conference hit on a related theme. They suggested that advanced technology would augment the human experience, enriching lives without rendering people obsolete.
But there's another possibility.
The Dark Future
We'll get right to it: Stephen Hawking believes artificial intelligence could doom the human race, and he's not alone. The concerns are nothing new, but they're increasingly relevant as technology becomes more and more advanced.
Bill Gates agreed during an appearance on "Charlie Rose" Monday evening.
"We cried wolf, wolf, wolf, and next thing we know there's a damn wolf," Gates said in response to a question about the development of AI.
He cautioned that there could be "profound consequences" as a result of this technology. Machines could easily render many jobs obsolete, he said. And what happens when AI becomes smarter than the people who created it?
“What will give us purpose in life?”
That last point seems far off. Robots are still learning to grasp basic commands. But Gates pointed out that the technology will scale up quickly -- a viewpoint shared by Ray Kurzweil, a well-known futurist who gave the second keynote at MIT Saturday.
"Technology is growing exponentially," Kurzweil said during his talk.
Academics know this, and one expressed particular concern over the future during MIT's "Life in 2025" panel.
"This issue of what it means to be a person in an age where more will be done by machines around us -- what will give us purpose in life?" asked Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.
"We need some kind of disruptive change in the social contract eventually. ... You need to give people a sense of purpose, a sense of pride and being," he added. "We need to resolve that at the global level."
That's easier said than done. But it's not impossible. It would take responsible corporations and an informed public, but precedents could also be set for AI before it's too late. There's so much potential for good here -- we just need to make sure people are protected.
Think about what's happening right now with Apple: The company recognized a potential breach in consumer privacy, informed the public and is poised to argue its position in court. Whatever results will be precedent-setting.
"Technology has been a double-edged sword ever since fire," Kurzweil said at MIT. "It kept us warm, but it also burned down our houses."