Silicon Valley funds our helpless future


My new best friend: a girl talks with a robot by Canbot at the China International Robot Show 2018 in Shanghai PHOTO/VCG

Stephen Hawking’s warning that ‘the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race’ resonated across the media and social networks when he died in March. In the last few years, the threat from artificial intelligence, long confined to science fiction, has been publicly debated, in association with automation and mass unemployment, or with the terrifying development of killer robots.

Major figures, from philosopher Nick Bostrom to Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, have warned of the existential threat that super-intelligent and potentially uncontrollable machines present to humanity. (Musk thinks them more dangerous than nuclear weapons.) Transhumanism is frightening, too. The movement emerged in Silicon Valley in 1980, promising that new technologies and AI would improve physical and mental health, with the prospect of eventual fusion between humans and machines. In 2002 Francis Fukuyama saw these ideas as the greatest peril in human history.

The moment when machines outstrip humans is called the ‘singularity’, a term coined by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge in his essay The Coming Technological Singularity (San Diego State University, 1993). It refers to an unspecified date when artificial intelligence will exceed human intelligence, the beginning of a new era that our human brains cannot imagine. Vinge was inspired by mathematician Stanislaw Ulam’s discussion of the exponential acceleration of technological progress, the writings of Isaac Asimov (The Last Question, 1956) and Philip K Dick (Vulcan’s Hammer, 1960; The Electric Ant,1969), and statistician Irving John Good’s speculations on ultra-intelligent machines.

By the 2000s, the singularity was identified as a key issue by Silicon Valley and had its own school of thought. Techno-optimists such as Raymond Kurzweil, a firm believer in transhumanism and a researcher at Google, see it as a desirable event.

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