If you’ve watched Channel 4’s Black Mirror, I’m sure you’ll agree that it never fails to evoke a strange feeling of wonder and fear that makes you want to go and live in the forest away from modern civilisation (or maybe that’s just me). If you haven’t watched Black Mirror, I would describe it as a twisted exploration of the high-tech modern world and our underlying fears about the future - one of these fears being the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it threatens humanity. In the episode Be Right Back, a woman hears about a new experimental service which allows people to keep in touch with those who have passed, and grieving from the recent death of her partner, she decides to try it out. The service has different levels and works by inputting photos, videos, texts and app data which are then used to replicate a person, and the more you input, the more realistic it becomes. The final level is a clone, and despite the faultless appearance, it’s never going to be more than a robotic replication of her partner. The storyline is completely bizarre, disturbing and moving all at once. It really encourages you to question how far is too far when it comes to technology. While AI, technology and the human capacity to create is amazing, there’s something equally terrifying and unnerving about it all.
It may be a long way off a Black Mirror world full of robotic clones, but AI is on the rise and there have been some extraordinary achievements so far. In medicine and science, AI is being used to develop new drugs which removes the need for human testing, and the risk of serious and potentially fatal side-effects which are sometimes discovered decades after a medication is launched. AI can also identify cancer in tissue slides better than human doctors and can analyse the genetic code of DNA to detect genomic conditions. In transport, AI can power drones and cars to self-drive which will massively reduce the number of road accidents and deaths. AI is also transforming everyday tasks - it can transcribe speech better than transcribers, recognise emotion in images of faces, speak and answer questions, and verify and protect identity. This year’s CES Technology Show saw some of the most innovative AI inventions yet, including roll-up TVs, smart socks for people with chronic pain, E-Palettes that function as portable hotels, takeaway delivery and lift-sharing, and headbands that encourage deep sleep and analyse sleep patterns.
" Stephen Hawking warned that AI could 'spell the end of the human race', but then again it was AI that enabled him to communicate."
We can already see how machines are replacing people in supermarkets, airports and factories and by 2050, experts believe AI will be able to perform any intellectual task a human can perform. How would you feel about getting a medical examination from an expert scanning system instead of seeing a doctor, or being operated on by a perfectly steady robotic hand? And would you trust a self-driving plane more than a human pilot? In some respects, machines are more reliable because they can solve complex problems more efficiently than humans, and they would minimize the problems caused by human error. As technology gets smarter, it’s likely businesses will utilise AI in order to save resources and time, but one of the biggest concerns is that machines will replace more jobs than they produce. Others disagree, insisting that a whole new industry of new jobs will be opened up as businesses explore new opportunities to use machines and robots. People also worry about the potential dangers of AI if it were to be used with ill intention. Governments have already used AI to develop autonomous weapons that can significantly reduce the threat to human life in mass conflict, but if terrorist organisations did the same it would be a very different story.
It’s natural for humans to fear the unknown, and this relates so much to the development of AI because it continues to push the boundaries of what we think is possible. Stephen Hawking warned that AI could 'spell the end of the human race', but then again it was AI that enabled him to communicate. The purpose of AI is to maximise human life and to make things easier, but as we become more reliant on machines to do things for us will this not create a decline in human intelligence? Many experts believe that the fears surrounding AI are overblown because machines can only work with the information they have been given. Without opening up a whole new can of worms on what it means to be conscious, it’s doubtful that AI will ever become more powerful than humans. Machines don’t have the sense of ‘self’ and the ability to think abstractly, and they don’t have real emotion or moral values. Machines might be able to make complex judgements and decisions, but they can only do this based on complex algorithms which have been programmed into a system, and not from gut feeling. Whether or not human intelligence should be replicated will continue to be an ongoing debate, and even though there is an underlying fear about how far it will go, it’s difficult to shake the curiosity about what AI will make possible in the not so distant future.