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Prometheus without A Zeus : AI And Its Unknown Implications

The future of robotics is exponentially ahead of our collective intelligence and imagination.

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In 1985, I was a young boy of eleven and a student of the fifth grade at Morse Public School, Cambridge Massachusetts. My father was a Mason Fellow at Harvard University pursuing his mid-career Masters in Public Policy and Administration at the Kennedy School of Government.

In one of the programs regularly organised for spouses and families of Mason Fellows, I have gifted a set of Transformers. They were then, as today, a very famous and successful robotic toy line and eponymous TV animated series. Accompanying the gifts, with a very Harvard touch, was a short illustrated note on real (not fantasy!) robots. For me, this incident sparked a lifelong interest concerning the encounter of man and machine. I ended up doing electronics engineering before ending up in management. I remain intrigued with man’s destiny apropos machines.

As I write this, the world is in the grips of an alarmist frenzy about the Novel Coronavirus. The panic stems from mankind’s collective recognition of its mortality. Our ignorance of what tomorrow may bring feeds our panic. However, to my mind, Artificial Intelligence and advancement of robotics will have a far greater effect on the human species, in positive and negative ways.

Sir Peter Medawar wrote an essay entitled ‘What is Human about Man Is 

His Technology’ in which he claimed that we humans, became ‘integrated psychologically with the instruments that serve us’ 

This was a ‘human-first’ view where technical advancement was seen as merely an instrumentality. Back then, man had the confidence that it was he who created technical advancement. Today, we live in a world where it is way above and beyond such instrumentality. Now, technology sets the pace and we are all –as individuals and societies- struggling to keep up.

Alan Mathison Turing wrote a paper in 1950 ‘Computer Machinery and Intelligence‘ where he estimated that by the year 2000, artificial intelligence would cease to be “artificial”! 

His benchmark test was one where a person would not be able to tell if they were having a conversation with a human or machine. It was called the Turing test. Famously mankind crossed this Rubicon in 2012 when Vladimir Veselov of the Reading University created a simulation software called Eugene corresponding to a 13-year-old’s persona. Yet, the bigger challenge is a future world where the robotic and human will be inseparable. Where the robot may be part human and the human will definitely be part robotic.

The future of robotics is exponentially ahead of our collective intelligence and imagination.

We still look at robots as tools – mechanical, computational or sensory. But, pay heed to what professor Erik Brynjolfsson, one of the world’s foremost AI experts has said about robotic evolution. In his studied view, once the robot gets to a baseline level of learning it has the ability to evolve and learn to do what humans do – incredibly faster – and then can further move on to learning about what humans cannot do!

Judgement, emotion, tact, ethics, spirited collaboration are all deemed to be beyond machines. However, now the question is whether they are even required? The machine will be learning way ahead of us.

A world of mega technology and micro technology is already emerging where we are all – as humans – structurally bound. There is so much commercial incentive that we have no choice in the matter. There is an element of sociological design at play. Whether talking to an IVR system, dealing with an ATM, doing auto check out at a store or printing our own boarding cards and luggage tags – in a myriad number of ways - we are being slowly and steadily being taught dealing with a machine interface. This is the first induction into a robotic, impersonal world. We follow the machine’s instructions even as we think the machine is doing what we want. Our world is broken into transactional encounters and our very being is fragmented into Apps. Our identity and most of our activities are miniaturised into the small handphone that we all carry.

The Czech dramatist Karl Capek Introduce the word ‘Robot’ into English. In a play written in 1922, he had imagined a RUR - ‘ Rossum’s Universal Robot’. In Czech, Robota means drudgery (as in mindless, repetitive, serf-like existence). In the play, his robots are produced as living machines but without souls. Their stated purpose is “to rid humanity from worry and be liberated from the degradation of labour “

Interestingly, the drama peaks when due to the intervention from “the humanity league “, the robots are granted, souls. They eventually overthrow mankind and create their own utopian, liberated Eden.

It thrills and spooks me at the same time how close the drama is to the emerging reality in many ways.

One begins to grasp the true implications when one can sum up the power of invasive, available and transactional technologies on the one hand with the hugely profitable network of the technology mega corporations namely Apple, alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook on the other. Now every breath we take can be recorded into a data pool along with every step we take. Every act we commit or failed to commit may be recorded, analysed, personalised, remarketed and monetised.

This seems inescapable because the very future of capitalism is beyond individuals and corporations and has acquired a self-sustaining life of its own. This phenomenon was explained as a geometric concept of the Rhizome by the French thinkers Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze in their book ‘ A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia ‘ published in 1980

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was punished by Zeus for stealing fire and using it to infuse life into clay objects. Today’s commercially motivated Prometheus fears no Zeus! 

In this case, his eventual punishment of servitude may come from his own creations! 

Machine – calculator – computer – supercomputer – robot and cyborg. 

What next? Lord and Master?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Shubhranshu Singh

The author is a global marketer, story teller, brand builder, columnist, and business leader. His interests include studying social change, impact of technology on consumer lives, understanding young consumers, history and politics.

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