Tinkering with thoughts about robots

Recently, I blogged about meeting Siri up close for the first time, through my grandson’s new iPad. Unashamedly and embarrassingly, I admitted I was awed by this talking lady on the computer. I also wondered and opined on how much technology progress has changed our world. In my youth, personal computers were just a phantom of the imagination, some brilliant inventors’ imagination, or perhaps, some prophetic allusions in fiction novels and the comic books. And look now. Stretching this line of thinking – will the Marvel characters and their proficiencies be realities in the future?

Yesterday, I happened to stumble on articles about the recently deceased Stephen Hawking, the physicist and philosopher. It mentions his views on the advancement of robotics and its implication to the modern world. I read a related article on Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, elaborating his conjecture on the same subject. Both espouse the opinion that robots and artificial intelligence (AI) can be and will be tremendous influence on the workings and direction of humanity.

Some of that effect has started to show in the driving and manufacturing business, for example, as well as in medicine. It is amazing how driverless cars have increased this year, and will exponentially do so in the coming years. Productivity and output have risen where robots are used in assembly lines. In medicine, non-invasive surgeries and diagnosis are abetted by the operation of cameras. There are many more examples where artificial intelligence (AI) is leading the outcomes of human endeavor. And then, of course, let’s not forget Siri or Alexa, the computer talking ladies who quickly assist with answers to questions relevant or irrelevant to the day-to-day routine of living. Yet, for all the advantages of having AI and robots around, there are grave concerns, as expressed by Hawking and Musk in the articles.

Yes, robots can boost productivity and relieve humans of certain chores to free them for work that only humans can do. Yes, AI or robots can augment the earning capacity of businesses, necessary to pump up the economy. Yes, AI may direct humans to space for further exploration of earth’s surroundings. Yes, AI may be able to accomplish wonders that humans may not be able to do. And this is where the perplexity starts to peel. That robots will take away work from humans is a common concern.

What Hawking and Musk both debunk is the probability that AI might take off on its own, discover and invent on its own, develop intricacies beyond human control and capabilities, and decide on its own for its own absolute benefit and contrary to human welfare. Their warning sounds ominous. But the heart of the message is that humans, in their race for advancement and genesis of artificial intelligence, follow and apply the natural ethical standards entrenched in the survival of humanity. Robots should not be in control. Humans should stay in control. That is their lucid yet paramount advice.

Hawking had a remarkable comment when he was interviewed by newsmen for broadcast and print publications – put simply, that if robots could work through their brain and disregard the “puppet strings”, they might develop their own power to harm humans. But this, in Hawking’s estimate, would not be intentional – it would “not be from malice but from competence”.

Those who eulogize the brilliance and headstrong endurance of Hawking might behoove the hope that he has met the Maker.

I feel no urge to watch Marvel characters in movies. But for curiosity’s sake, maybe I will, to tinker with some idea of what the far future might be for this world – or maybe not! I’d like to think that the common sense, or better still, the wisdom in human intelligence will not allow AI to go that far. What do you think?

Linda P. Jacob

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