We’re already on the Starship Enterprise. But instead of boldly going where no man has gone before, our mission is to figure out what to have for dinner.

From the Terminator franchise to Alex Garland’s critically acclaimed new blockbuster Ex_Machina, cinema is full of bold and troubling visions of what might happen when the machines get a mind of their own. Should we live in fear of our future robot overlords, or feel optimistic about our utopian Star Trek future?

In tandem with the two talks presented by AXNS as part of Southbank Cantre’s Web We Want festival, AXNS were asked to give some answers…



 Will machines take over?


Rachel Stratton: The answer to this question really depends on what is meant by ‘taking over’. Will intelligent robots instigate and win a war against the human race? That is both impossible to answer and very difficult to conceive of. Hypothetically speaking, were AI allowed to develop at the current rate at which it is going (which may well not be the case), there could conceivably be robots intelligent enough to overpower human beings of their own accord. However, intelligent beings have individual thought and it would, therefore, be unlikely that a force of ‘robots’ would uniformly wish to threaten the human race at large. Rather, robots and humans would likely collaborate and fight amongst themselves in much the way that human beings do now.

If the phrase ‘taking over the world’ refers to taking over responsibilities, jobs and services that have traditionally been occupied by humans, then this is already underway. Many services once run by humans are now automated – for example, machines that pack and ship items, machines that catalogue objects, machines that make shoes. Whether this means a redundant human workforce, or simply a change in the roles taken on by a human workforce remains to be seen.

The futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that singularity between man and machine will occur in 2045. The singularity is said to be the point at which advances in technology are so great that the human race can no longer continue as an entity separate from it. It is, in part, this idea that has led eminent scientists such asStephen Hawking to speak out in warning against allowing AI to continue to be developed unchecked. However, it should also be noted that the term singularity was first used by John von Neumann in 1958 and the term AI coined in 1955, so although these are ideas are getting a lot of traction now, they are by no means new phenomena.


When will we be able to talk to our computers?


Miranda Marcus: In short, it’s already a reality. Most of us are walking around with voice recognition software such as Apple Siri and Google Now in our pockets right now, allowing us to wantonly cheat at the pub quiz – not to mention voice-controlled entertainment systems in the front room such as the Amazon Fire TVor Comcast’s X1 Platform waiting for the command to change the channel. TheInternet of Things (IoT) is a rapidly developing industry with everything from intelligent thermostats to fridges that suggest recipes based on what’s inside it. Software such as Ubi – ‘The voice of the internet’ – chats to our dishwashers, and this will be the key to their success. In order for them to become part of our lives, people need to trust them. One of the most effective ways of trust is for that item to display human characteristics – including voice.

Experts predict that there will be up to 26 billion installed IoT devices by 2020. The most common applications for this technology initially will be home security, home monitoring and health monitoring. Growing popularity of these applications will justify the introduction of microphones and other sensors into homes and businesses almost immediately. Once these microphones are in place, they can be assigned to do just about anything – from listening to people sleep (to provide a ‘snore report’), or monitoring who’s present in a room or building and send notifications based on that information.

An then there is Ellie, the virtual therapist developed by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Ellie is programmed to assess signs of depression or post-traumatic stress – particularly useful among soldiers and veterans. She combines sophisticated voice and facial recognition software to deliver emotionally stimulating questions and monitor the facial expressions of the patient while they answer. She doesn’t need to be able to understand emotions, empathise or relate emotionally to the patient. The data collected through the expressions made by the patient is what that the diagnosis is made on. The researchers developing Ellie have said that they do not see her as a replacement of flesh and blood therapists, but an assistant to help the clinician diagnose. Patients have also reported that speaking to Ellie is useful as she can only listen, and there is no human bias.

We’re already on the Starship Enterprise. The technology is here, but instead of boldly going where no man has gone before, our mission is to figure out what to have for dinner.


 Can Sci-Fi predict the future?


Rachel Bedder: It’s hard to pin-point which science, or dystopian, fiction story gives us a best prediction of the future. Some of the most interesting novels I have read follow a community through a particular technological advancement across a significant enough span of time to allow us to understand the social and political motivations surrounding these changes. This tends to lend itself well to literature more than film. Ideas such as the progression of artificial intelligence and rampant profit-driven genetic engineering are beautifully (and not necessarily implausibly) explored through texts such as Issac Asimov’s I, Robot short stories (1950) and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy (2003-2013) respectively. Told through the eyes of a ‘robopsychologist’, I, Robot gives an almost systematic assessment of how as AI progresses, from automatons used for building to calculating ‘brain-type’ devices and explores how this changes the political landscape and our identity as mortal beings.

Dr Murray Shanahan, who is speaking on the When Science Fiction Becomes Reality: AI in the Digital Age panel at Web We Want, talks about how the media often portrays the future as this immediate timepoint when talking about the exponential threat of AI, ignoring the years of development and scientific advancement needed to bring us there. I think sci-fi as a potential vision of the future often does an excellent job of allowing us to reflect on the political and philosophical choices we need to make throughout these developments.



AXNS appeared at two events in this year’s Web We Want festival:
When Science Fiction Becomes Reality: AI in the Digital Age
Neuroplasticity and the Web: How Technology is Changing the Brain.

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