It was once the stuff of science fiction novels and films, but artificial intelligence and robot sentience are here and developing fast. A range of experts are responsible, including engineers.

This burgeoning reality is presenting the world with advantages that cannot be understated, but we also need to remain vigilant.

Source: Pixabay

Science fiction has presented us with a number of negative scenarios which have entertained us, but knowing that fact is sometimes stranger than fiction it is worth remaining wary. Do we want to entrust the operation of our important infrastructure to sentient machines?

Enter a new documentary entitled ‘Do You Trust This Computer?’ The 2018 documentary questions the internet-connected, artificially intelligent technologies that are increasingly capable of harvesting our data.

Do we really have a handle on how this will all unfold?

Rapid advancement

The speed at which technology is developing is causing chaos for those who are neither agile nor flexible enough to keep up. As we know, jobs involving repetitive tasks are being replaced by clever machines which are able to work relentlessly and tirelessly.

Whilst there have been no worker protests over robot replacements in the assembly line, the same cannot be said for autonomous vehicles. Taxi companies are up in arms. The reality is that a computer will inevitably become more skilled than a human driver. It will not succumb to distractions, or to tiredness and it will not battle slow reflexes. The future will see fewer vehicle-related fatalities.

The medical industry has also been taken by storm. Computers are reading mammograms, they’re diagnosing diseases and offering treatments (in many cases more efficiently and accurately that doctors).

Hello, Robot Overlords

At the very beginning there was a question that would ultimately define the concept of AI.

The question was: Can a computer think?

Dutch computer scientist and 1972 Turing Award winner Edsger W. Dijkstra replied with, “Can a submarine swim?”

A submarine is engineered around the basic principles of marine life. It then goes on to improve on nature by being more robust than a marine creature - it has a harder exterior ‘shell’. It also trumps the swimming speed of marine creatures. It has in fact, surpassed the natural world.

Similarly, with the basic principles of thought installed in computers, and becoming increasingly refined, is AI poised to surpass the capacity of our human brains? In many instances it already has and will strengthen as quantum computing powers up.

These examples show how remarkably capable and cognitive robots have become: Baxter is replacing workers on the assembly line. The biomedical DaVinci robot is performing precise surgeries and with each operation improving its capabilities; essentially learning from experience. Sophia the Robot is having intelligent conversations with interviewers.

The future has become the present.

Autonomous weapons

More alarming is the impact on warfare; drone technology has emerged and with AI capability are scanning territories as they fly.

Peter Singer, the author of ‘Wired for War’, says there are 10,000 automated drones in the U.S. military - with 80 other countries also operating automated weapon-fitted drones. Essentially an automated, AI-powered arms race is heating up. 6,000 concerned senior engineers and scientists have drafted an open letter to AI industry leaders; to highlight the dangers of AI development.

Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking were among the signatories.

Engineers and scientists are determined that technologies powered by AI should promote the wellbeing of life on planet earth. Elon Musk explains that AI could, even without evil intent, make seemingly irrational decisions because of its capacity to learn. He says:

“AI doesn’t have to be evil to destroy humanity. If AI has a goal, and humanity just happens to be in the way, it will destroy humanity as a matter of course. Without even thinking about it, no hard feelings. It’s just like, if we’re building a road - and an anthill happens to be in the way - we don’t hate ants, we’re just building a road. And, so, goodbye anthill.”

A robot takeover - ala-Terminator 2 – is, thankfully, not likely in the near future. But a little more transparency around the development of machine learning algorithms is required.

Students at Carnegie Mellon University have been working on a standard for ‘algorithmic transparency’. Anupam Datta, an Associate Professor of Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering at the university, explains:

“Some companies are already beginning to provide transparency reports, but work on the computational foundations for these reports has been limited. Our goal was to develop measures of the degree of influence of each factor considered by a system, which could be used to generate transparency reports.”

Transparency will soon be the name of the game. And for engineering industries that make the world go round and whose inventions deeply impact human life, perhaps that’s a good thing.

Works Cited
“Do You Trust This Computer? (2018).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt6152554/.
Potgieter, Quintus. “Engineers conduct studies on artificial intelligence and its machine-learning practices.” Start Here..., engineeringcareer.org/news/348-engineers-conduct-studies-on-artificial-intelligence-and-its-machine-learning-practices.html.

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