The new overlords
Man and technology are evolving together in radical new ways
Mar 10th 2011 | from the print edition
CAN machines surpass humans in intelligence? People were shocked in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat Garry Kasparov, a Russian grandmaster, at chess. But winning a board game is a trivial task compared with understanding the complexities and idiosyncrasies of human speech. The company has now developed Watson, a supercomputer it thinks is capable of understanding “natural language”.
To put this claim to the test, IBM arranged for its creation to compete in “Jeopardy!”, an American quiz show known for using clues and wordplay that even bright humans struggle to understand. In the contest, televised in America in February, Watson trounced the two most successful previous champions of the quiz.
This victory fits nicely into Ray Kurzweil’s vision. An inventor and futurist, he has long predicted the rise of intelligent machines. “Transcendent Man”, a new documentary film, probes his breathtaking, possibly balmy, vision of the future.
Mr Kurzweil leads an influential cabal of techno-optimists, a group that includes Silicon Valley stars, scientific grandees and even the Obama administration’s chief information officer, Vivek Kundra. They believe mankind is heading for a glorious post-biological era known as the Singularity. Thanks to implants and other enhancements, humans will improve along with machines. But artificial intelligence will inevitably surpass the human kind—and will do so, according to Mr Kurzweil’s calculations, as early as 2029.
Predicting what will happen after that point is difficult, he argues, because we cannot hope to predict the behaviour or evolution of hyper-intelligent machines. But he insists that “the intelligence that will emerge will continue to represent the human civilisation, which is already a human-machine civilisation.”
Mr Kurzweil’s journey as a futurist began when he became intrigued by rapid advances in computing capacity. Scrutinising the progress in other realms of modern technology, he found the same explosive growth. This “law of accelerating returns” underpins the modern digital economy.
He argues that this technological acceleration affects many industries. For example, the rate of expansion of solar energy has been doubling every two years for the past two decades which, he insists, means that solar power will meet all energy needs in 20 years. When the human genome project started, sceptics argued it would take centuries to scan an entire human genome using prevailing technologies; in fact, thanks to exponential advances in sequencing technology, it was done in less than 15 years.
But what if the biggest breakthroughs come in improving man himself? Some technology experts think mankind will transform itself into a fitter, smarter and better-looking species in coming decades—a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans argue in “Homo Evolutis”, a new electronic book, that the leapfrogging advances seen today in biotechnology, gene therapy, epigenetics, proteomics and a myriad of related fields are turbocharging evolution itself. “Forget the Singularity—biology will trump technology,” insists Mr Enriquez.
The authors argue that mankind has at last become the first species capable of deliberately directing its own evolution. Some of this is being done to improve looks or athletic performance; other techniques are extending life or growing vital organs. Along the way the human species is being changed. There is no master plan, the authors insist, as it is “not one technology, government, company, region or discipline that is driving speciation.”
As with Mr Kurzweil’s forecasts for machine super-intelligence and post-biological bodies, these predictions raise hackles in the scientific establishment. But even if the futurists are wrong about the pace of change, they may turn out to be right about the direction. In his final “Jeopardy!” answer, one of the human contestants conceded defeat by scribbling a cheeky line from “The Simpsons” television show: “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”
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