Are we to be ruled by robots?

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on April 30, 2017

Title: Mega Tech: Technology in 2050 <br>Edited by: Daniel Franklin <br>Publisher: The Economist <br>Books / Hachette India <br>Price: ₹499<br>

Unlikely, assures a collection on the future of technology. But there are other challenges

Alan Turing, one of the first humans to imagine modern computing, felt the ability to talk formed the essence of human intelligence. Conversation was our unique gift, he believed. And this trait differentiated us from machines. The famous Turning Test, hence, tried to map a machine’s ability to think (like humans, of course) by measuring its capability to talk ‘naturally’. If a machine could talk like a human, then, believed Turing, it could think like a human, too.

That was in the 1950s. Computers still don’t think like humans do. But they’re almost there. They can now perform almost all the tasks humans are capable of. Machines, robots to be precise, can now treat patients, write songs and news, crack jokes, greet customers, and, even make love to humans, if the global race to build sex dolls is any indication. Scientists such as Moshe Vardi say human labour may become obsolete by 2045, thanks to robots.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is on song and for obvious reasons its rapid progress has got many of our best brains suitably worried. This concerned lot include the likes of physicist Stephen Hawking and techno-entrepreneur Elon Musk. They worry that ultra-intelligent machines may colonise humans in the future if we don’t deal with them now. The danger from AI is real and present, they fear.

The robots aren’t coming , yet

But the reality is more trivial, writes tech philosopher Luciano Floridi in Megatech: Technology in 2050, an anthology on the future of technology edited by The Economist’s executive editor, Daniel Franklin. Current and foreseeable smart technologies have, writes Floridi in his essay, ‘The ethics of artificial intelligence’, the intelligence of an abacus: that is, zero. The trouble is always, he explains, with human stupidity or evil nature. Machines are not born. They are made. There is a sea of difference between the two processes.

Floridi gives an example. On March 24, 2016, Microsoft released an AI-based chat robot, on Twitter. Tay the bot was supposed to get smarter as it interacted with Twitter users and their comments. But Tay didn’t get smarter. Instead, it absorbed all the malicious intent in the people it interacted with. Within hours, it became, in Floridi’s words, a Hitler-loving, Holocaust-denying, incestual-sex-promoting chatterbox. Microsoft recalled Tay within 16 hours of its release and apologised.

Let’s not mess it up

Tay’s example reveals two things: our worries about a dystopian future powered by AI is, at least for now, just a fancy, and smart technologies and AI demand seriously responsible behaviour from their makers. Stupidity is the enemy of all forms of intelligence, human or machine. So is evil intent. It is up to us whether we want to be enslaved by the machines we make or let them enhance our lives using their capabilities.

All the authors in this neatly compiled volume help us understand how technology is going to change our lives going ahead. In one of the early chapters, Robert Carlson, investor and scientist, looks at how biotech will change the way we live, work, think or perceive in 2050. He foresees a time when scientists will be able to build a bridge between the human cerebral cortex and digital devices so that this newspaper can be directly beamed into the brain, saving the reader the pain of having to actually read it.

Yes, that’s very much in the realm of the possible. It’s one of the many goals of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the US. There are several such agencies working towards using technology to make real ideas we think are fodder for fiction today — such as plants and trees capable of choosing fertiliser suited to their needs. Practices such as using live-in bacteria can help trees fix nitrogen in the atmosphere and releasing chemically unavailable phosphorous will become common, revolutionising farming.

Seeds of future

Farming is just one of the many sectors, like healthcare, where technology is going to make phenomenal changes. Automobiles, education, labour, publishing, aviation and space travel, and virtual reality are some sectors that are witnessing a transformation thanks to technology. By 2050, cars will not only drive on their own, but the entire traffic infrastructure will be automated and powered by AI. Books will communicate with minds, long-distance planets will get closer, and wars will be fought in the VR space first and, hopefully, forever.

Megatech, which presents an impressive line-up of authors, doesn’t end its discourse on this optimistic note. The authors go the extra mile to ask the most important question: Who will be the real beneficiaries of these changes? Will the techno-revolution be egalitarian? Or will it pave the way for further divisions by letting an elite class enjoy all the fruits of technological advancements and pushing lesser mortals into more poverty and frustration, spawning a dystopian world and triggering, as we fear, a clash of techno-civilisations? Will megatech, in sum, create mega-inequality?

Adrian Wooldridge, The Economist’s former Schumpeter columnist, has some answers. Technology has been responsible, to some extent, for the current bout of inequality, he agrees. But going ahead, it will be part of the solution as well. Yes, almost all the productivity gains in the past 20 years, all thanks to advancements in technology, were enjoyed by the richest 1 per cent on the globe. Technology, as a result, has become a force that divides people today. But the same force can boost opportunities, if cleverly diverted, Wooldridge writes. He believes in information technology’s power to empower customers, challenge rent-seeking elite and push down costs of services. In other words, it will help create a level playing field for all.

And this factor will help bring down inequality by enabling the masses to improve their vertical mobility. Tech in 2050 will stand testimony to that, unless, of course, other socio-political challenges and changes spoil the party.


Daniel Franklin is executive editor of The Economist and editor of The Economist’s annual publication, ‘The World in...’, which focuses on the year ahead.

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Published on April 30, 2017
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