The trouble with machines is, they do things better than we do. “Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth,” said the third-century B.C. Greek inventor Archimedes, lever in hand. The Earth has been moving ever since, ever faster.
Still, from his time to ours, through mechanical evolutions and technological revolutions, a machine remained a machine. Lever or electric vacuum cleaner, inclined plane or automobile — or personal computer or smartphone, for that matter — humans commanded, machines obeyed. They knew their place. More accurately, they didn’t know their place; they didn’t know, period. Didn’t care. Unconsciously, unresistingly, they served our needs (or what we thought to be our needs), not we theirs. Is that about to change?
There’s an event pending that those stoking it have dubbed a “singularity.” The cosmologists from whom the term is borrowed coined it in their account of the origin of the universe. It has, therefore, momentous connotations. The singularity on whose brink we stand may be nothing less than a new universe opening up for us — for better or for worse. Alternatively, it may, as some say, be no more than convenience writ very large. Relax.
It will occur, this second “singularity,” when artificially intelligent machines become smarter than we are. It’s bound to happen. The question is when. Some experts say it’s a long way off and we have lots of time to ponder the implications. Others say brace for it, it’s almost here, a matter of maybe 20 years, maybe less.
Human intelligence has always been a marvel to intelligent humans. What is it? Where does it come from? Is it physiological, or spiritual? Can it be replicated? The weekly Aera, introducing a series of articles on the subject, traces that last question all the way back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who 100 years before Archimedes seems to have envisioned an intelligent loom that wove without human intervention. Maybe Aristotle, brought back to life on July 17 in Nagasaki, wouldn’t be shocked by the “Strange Hotel.”
Why should he be? He might not even notice that the three front desk clerks are robots. They look human (more or less), smile pleasantly, ask the usual questions, and even make small talk — in several languages, though perhaps not in ancient Greek. “Strange Hotel” is a direct translation of the establishment’s name, Henna Hoteru. It’s due to open July 17 at Nagasaki’s Huis Ten Bosch Dutch theme park. Robots — some of them humanoid, some not; 10 at first, 90 percent of staff eventually — will carry bags, clean rooms and perform various other functions. The hotel’s operators calls this “a commitment for evolution.” Would Charles Darwin have smiled or shuddered?
You can get apocalyptic about artificial intelligence. Physicist Stephen Hawking, a founding father, so to speak, of thinking on the first singularity, says of the second, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk, CEO of electric vehicle pioneer Tesla Motors, tweeted his fear that AI is potentially more dangerous than the atom bomb. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has said, “I don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”
Who’s not concerned? Tokyo University engineering professor Yutaka Matsuo, for one. Life is one thing, intelligence another, he tells Aera; fears that the latter, artificial or not, can stifle the former are “ridiculous.”
Those directly involved in developing AI are bound to see it in a positive light — if they didn’t they wouldn’t be developing it. Sharing Matsuo’s enthusiasm is mathematician Noriko Arai, a professor at Japan’s National Institute of Informatics, one of whose ongoing projects is helping design a robot, affectionately known as Torobo-kun, clever enough to pass the University of Tokyo’s entrance exam.
Arai, in conversation with Aera, opens up a disturbing perspective. AI, she says, will eliminate 50 percent of white-collar jobs. Within a decade, if not sooner, office workers of all sorts — managers, clerks, experts, functionaries — will, if not already redundant, be in direct, likely frantic, probably losing competition with machines who can do the same jobs more cheaply and more efficiently. What then?
Well, it’s nothing new. Technical innovation has always put people out of work. Everyone knows the Luddites, those brave but doomed early 19th-century British textile workers who smashed factory machinery in the hope of protecting their jobs. Technology marched on regardless. Its saving grace has always been its capacity to create new jobs while eliminating old — more challenging and rewarding jobs to boot. Will AI?
Arai takes a stab at optimism. “I was worried myself until a short time ago,” she admits to Aera; but “let’s think in terms of small businesses in outlying areas, employing, say, three people” — niche businesses, in short, care providers and the like, offering services bigger operations tend to overlook; though care facilities, even more than hotels, are often seen as the setting above all others in which intelligent robots can prove their worth and win skeptics over.
Torobo-kun, beyond cavil, is a cute little devil and certainly no fool — it can pass entrance exams to 80 percent of Japan’s private universities. Not, however, Tokyo University’s. Give it another 10 years, Arai says, and that milestone will be crossed. Tokyo University has long been the intellectual nursery of much of the nation’s government and senior bureaucracy. If you think the nation is intelligently governed, you will cheer Torobo-kun on and see the dawning brave new world in a positive light. Otherwise, you may be inclined to hold on to your reservations.
Japan’s burgeoning nursing care industry, struggling to accommodate the ever growing ranks of infirm elderly, seems a promising field indeed for machines with human intelligence but immune to human stress, fatigue and other vulnerabilities; the decommissioning operation at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s gutted Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant likewise. Possibilities Aera mentions are in a lighter vein and suggest the magazine harbors a generally benign view of the phenomenon — artificially intelligent cooks, artificially intelligent matchmakers and so on.
It boils down to this: Are humans meant to exercise intelligence, or merely benefit from it? If the latter, it doesn’t matter where it comes from, whose it is, or whether it’s artificial or not. If the former, we risk turning ourselves into, or being turned into, mindless consumers. Sounds like fun. Whether “fun” is necessarily synonymous with “good” is another question. Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, wrote an article for Wired magazine in 2004 titled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” He concedes the possibility that “machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones.” He concedes too that that may be conducive to happiness. The catch? Humanity “will have been reduced to the status of domestic animals.”
Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.