Machines and men

Wednesday / Jul 12 2017

Newspaper : The News

The recent advances in artificial intelligence are truly mindboggling. Dr Ray Kurzweil, an authority on futuristic thinking, predicts that by 2045, “the state of singularity” will be reached and machines will become more intelligent than human beings in logic and creativity.

This will be a turning point for humanity. His past predictions have come true, with an amazing 86 percent accuracy. According to Kurzweil, the process has already started in earnest and artificial intelligence will give us the ability to replace our biology with         far superior hardware. By the 2030s, we will be able to copy human brains and consciousness onto an electronic medium.

With the development of fully immersive Virtual Reality, physical office spaces will become obsolete. People will “telecommute” to work in virtual offices and populations will become decentralised because they won’t need to shift to specific locations for their jobs. 

According to Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, the creation of artificial intelligence could result in the end of the human race and its replacement by more intelligent self-evolving machines. Can machines learn by themselves and improve their level of intelligence and comprehension? This is a branch of artificial intelligence (AI) called “unsupervised learning” and it is now expanding rapidly.

Most AI companies depend on algorithms that are taught to them by humans regarding how to perceive and represent what they are learning. This is a slow and tedious process as it involves human supervision. However, Cortica – a company in Israel – has recently developed a system through which machines are capable of learning, classifying and representing things without guidance.

Israel has become a world leader in the field of technical innovation, with more companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange than any country – with the exception of China and the US. About 50 percent of these companies are founded by the faculty and graduate students of Technion (Israel Institute of Technology).

The ability to see things around us, recognise them and relate them to our past knowledge in a fraction of a second involves an incredible amount of processing. Every time we open our eyelids, the receptors at the back of our eyes come into action. The optical images are converted into electrical signals, which are conveyed to the back of our brains where they are analysed in terms of the size, shape, depth and colour of the objects being viewed. Subsequently, they are compared to every other object that we have ever encountered. As a result, we are in a better position to recognise and make sense of things and determine their function.

This happens several times a second as we glance here and there. This mind boggling process may now be reproduced artificially in machines, allowing a huge leap forward for the robots of tomorrow.

Cortica is not alone in these efforts. A number of other companies are now on the verge of getting machines to perform this task of seeing and recognising objects with the same ease that humans can. This will have a wide-ranging impact on many applications, including security cameras, autonomous vehicles, satellite imagery, medical diagnostics, military robots and industry.

As AI evolves at a staggering pace – and is expected to overtake human intelligence in the next few decades with abilities to read, write as well as sense and react to emotions – experts are beginning to discuss how robots will soon become indistinguishable from humans. According to James Hughes, the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, the key characteristic of humans is consciousness and self-awareness. As soon as a machine achieves this, it becomes a “person”.

How do we define consciousness? This has now become a topic of discussion among many experts in the field. How we treat beings that are made of different materials but are similar to us is in many ways and how they will integrate into society are key questions.

Artificial intelligence is already finding many uses. Google recently launched a personalised job search function recently that is based on AI. This allows one to search the jobs that one would prefer without going to multiple sites in the job-hunting process. It does not even require users to download a new app. Powered by a new AI tool, existing search functions can be used on laptops or mobiles employing Google’s Cloud Jobs API. All one needs to do is simply type “jobs near me” or “writing jobs” or “teaching jobs”, etc. This results in the appearance of the new jobs widget along with a multitude of online job boards, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Monster and WayUP.

An important area where AI is now being employed is to protect major institutions from computer hackers. One such institution is CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) or the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in English. CERN uses a huge network of hundreds of thousands of computers to unravel the mysteries of the universe and hackers could make other uses of such tremendous computing power if they could hack into the grid.

A related field that is making rapid progress is that of neuroscience. According to the Nobel laureate James Watson: “the brain is the last and grandest biological frontier, the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe. It contains hundreds of billions of cells interlinked through trillions of connections. The brain boggles the mind”.

This is a field which has fascinated me. Thoughts are not abstract. They are made of atoms and molecules and we have proposed that memories are made of certain patterns that are formed instantaneously through a process called “hydrogen bonding”. When you raise your hand or lift a cup of tea, the command signals that emanate from the brain are different from other stray thoughts and can be readily recognised if you are wearing a cap fitted with sensors.

‘Such devices are now commercially available and are being used for completely paralysed persons to operate a motorised wheel chair fitted with a small computer or to drive a car through crowded streets purely through thought control. Devices are also being developed that will integrate with your brain and enhance its power to think and store knowledge, resulting in a new “humanoid” species with enhanced capabilities.

Pakistan needs to set up a centre of excellence in artificial intelligence and robotics as tomorrow’s industries will be operated exclusively by robots and tomorrow’s wars will be fought by robots that are experts in war strategies.

The days for us puny humans may be numbered.


The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OICCountries (NASIC).