Turning inner space into outer space

December 12, 2015

Here's hoping artificial intelligence will be our friend

Ex Machina is an excellent movie that explores artificial intelligence.

There’s a lot more to artificial intelligence than the impossible-to-beat chess game on your computer.

Digital assistants on your smartphone (think Siri, Google Now and Cortana) can figure out how to fulfil many of your wishes, but they are just the start.

The original inventors of Siri, for example, have started up a new company devoted to going way beyond their first child’s capabilities. Siri can do whatever it’s programmed to do. The next step, called Viv, will be able to learn and anticipate what you want.

But even that feels kind of old. OpenAI, a non-profit research company with a billion dollars in backing, started up this week to explore artificial intelligence and ensure that it is used for humanity’s benefit — not its downfall.

Eminent British scientist Stephen Hawking predicted just one year ago that artificial intelligence could eventually catch up with humans and surpass us.

It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.

The researchers at OpenAI see the future going either way.

It’s hard to fathom how much human-level AI could benefit society, and it’s equally hard to imagine how much it could damage society if built or used incorrectly.

A good way to forecast the future is by looking at current trends. I find Siri on my iPhone to be hit and miss. Sometimes I get a decent answer, sometimes I get nothing. It still seems easier and more reliable to type in a search.

But it’s easy to forget that even search has come a long way. There was a time when search engine results were mostly a mess of links to items that may have contained your keywords but little else of interest.

When Google came along with the smarts to figure out how to give us search results that are actually useful, we sat up and took notice. Now we take it for granted.

One day the successors to Siri will be that good, and it will seem normal for your phone to know you so well that it can anticipate your every whim.

The truly amazing breakthrough will come when computers create things for us without being asked. It might start with Siri suggesting that it could write a blog post for you about a recent vacation — based on things in your phone such as airline bookings, travel itineraries and photos taken on certain dates and at certain place.

Or maybe Siri could check your LinkedIn account and see that you’re between jobs. It might take the initiative of searching the Internet for job postings that fit your skill set, tailor some cover letters and resumés, then fire them off.

The tipping point will come when we realize that Siri’s blog posts and cover letters are better than anything we could have done for ourselves. The artificial intelligence would not only surpass human intelligence, but discourage us from learning to do things on our own.

Will this be a good thing or a bad thing? Every technological advance has had tradeoffs. Just be aware of what’s going on and be ready to scramble to make sure the tradeoff is in your favour.