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Ruminating on the robot apocalypse

A couple of months ago, I stumbled across an article about artificial intelligence. It encompassed the rise of the supercomputers, the exponential rate of progress, and the possibility we may all be turned into grey nano-goo by an everyday robot gone rogue.

This was the first time I’d ever really encountered these topics, at least in a way that seemed convincing. How have I managed this? I wondered. How have I gone 29 years without having seriously countenanced the robot apocalypse?

I contemplated the ins and outs of machine consciousness. The idea that our species stands at a tipping point between immortality and extinction. The fact that Stephen Hawking thinks AI could spell the end of humanity, and that Elon Musk says we’re ‘summoning the demon’. And then I returned to what I was originally doing, and dashed off a blogpost about boobs.

Since then, the boobs in question have slipped off the media radar, artificial intelligence has continued its creep toward supremacy, and I’ve been re-evaluating my priorities. In fact, I’ve been cornering all the science-minded people I know to ask them why they’ve never mentioned this before. Couldn’t they have pointed out that the singularity is coming and therefore The Sun’s business model is none but an idle farce?

After all, AI changes everything. If computers really are due to become so unconscionably superintelligent within the next 30 years – intelligent enough to turn all carbon-based matter into nano-assemblers – then why the hell are we wasting time on anything else at all? Why aren’t the chattering classes holding the mad scientists to account, or at least, lining up to chair the ethics boards?

Evidently, I know more about hyperbole than I do about nanobots. But that in itself is sort of my point: the fact that there are probably thousands of people like me, who have filed away some really mind-warping ideas as ‘not our domain’. We have identity politics and echo chambers; the tech-heads have time travel and the Fermi paradox. We engage in Twitter spats about Lena Dunham; they sit there stealthily determining the future of the entire human race.

I’m trying to find a way of exonerating myself, which doesn’t involve simply shrugging my shoulders and accepting that I’m a cretin. So here’s a massive generalisation about how this division comes to be.

When you’re a kid, you’re naturally inquisitive. Most of the time is playtime, and what passes for ‘work’ is just learning stuff. Because nobody is asking you to be an economically productive member of society – say by spending eight hours a day filling in spreadsheets – there’s no need to numb yourself into a state of pliable blankness. Supernovas, laser fights and dinosaurs are in, complacency is out.

As you get older, however, curiosity loses its cachet. You narrow your imagination. While you may still have a questioning mind, society rewards specialisation, so you confine your attentions to your own little niche, and ignore the bigger picture.

But perhaps every now and again, you’ll go out into the countryside and see stars for the first time in ages. You’ll experience that dizzying lurch in perspective: the realisation that you’re a tiny dot on a tiny rock in space, and none of us have the slightest clue how any of it came to be. You’ll be humbled, and struck with the strangeness of it all. Then you’ll go back to normality, and your existential predicament will be drowned out by more pressing concerns: ‘pay bills’, ‘hit deadline’, ‘purchase sandwich’, ‘wonder whether a tooth whitening treatment might make your favourite gym instructor fancy you’.

For me, reading about AI was that kind of experience, only this time round the overwhelming weirdness has stuck in my head. After all, far from being an abstract concern, there are scientific developments underway that will upend the course of history in our lifetimes. Perhaps like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk you’re an end-of-days pessimist who thinks they could spell disaster; perhaps like Google’s pet futurologist Ray Kurzweil, you think they’re going to radically change things for the better.

But even if you reckon the techies are overstating their case, you may still have concerns. For example, what will machine intelligence do to the way the workforce is structured? Even if our mortal matter is relatively unscathed, what about our jobs?

I don’t think any of us can afford to disengage from science and tech. What the geeks are getting up at the moment to is bound to rock the boat for the rest of us, and we’d be foolish not to pay attention as it happens. If the demon is indeed being summoned, I definitely want to be there to take notes.

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Abi Millar

Journalist and caffeine fiend. I blog about fitness, media fails, London life, and whatever unrelated fixations have piqued my curiosity that day.

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