Image: Juan Rumimpunu on Unsplash

Could an algorithm write any number of bestsellers or compose a symphony to match Bach or Beethoven or stretch our imaginations and allow us to travel through time like Marty McFly? Ultimately. Probably. Yes!

Biomedical engineer and inventor, Jordan Nguyen, says that technology is evolving faster than at any time before, but possibly at the slowest rate we will ever see again. 

But accurately predicting the outcome of this technology explosion is beyond the scope of its creators. Which is why mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, the author of The Technological Singularity, called it the “Singularity”. 

Pro-singularity experts believe the technological singularity will occur in the next 20 to 100 years. 

The technological singularity

The “technological singularity” is the theoretical concept wherein artificial intelligence (AI) surpasses human intelligence and rapidly accelerates — the law of accelerating returns — to achieve a cognitive capacity that far exceeds that of humans. 

As futurist Raymond Kurzweil puts it: the rate of technological change is so extreme that it approaches an infinite value:  “… we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.”

Machines would become superintelligent, capable of designing their own hardware and software. Their cognitive capacities would advance recursively, along with all fields of science and technology.

The possibilities are profound. Philosopher Nick Bostrom envisages the uploading of human minds into computers and the modification or enhancement of the biological capacities of humans that remain organic.

In a similar theme, Jordan Nguyen believes that current technologies, enhanced with those to come, will converge into something he calls “sustainable immortality” — a massively increased lifespan and quality of life that provides prosperity for all without obliterating our Earth.

Virtually anything and everything will be possible


Image: Andy Beales on Unsplash

Time travel has intrigued everyone from Einstein to HG Wells and all those who believe that anything and everything is possible. 

Who could forget Marty McFly’s hilarious adventures in the Back to the Future sci-fi trilogy as he endeavours to resolve a series of consistency paradoxes, such as the grandfather paradox, which occurs when the past is changed and thus creates an anomaly — often called the butterfly effect.

But whether the Singularity will one day allow us to physically travel through time like Marty McFly is perhaps beyond the realm of possibilities — or is it? 

Great thinkers like Einstein, Gödel, and Hawking, didn’t rule time travel out. Not by something so exotic as a DeLorean, but by some other mindboggling means.

And research continues into the “logical possibility of time travel, the physical possibility of time travel, and the technological practicality of time travel.”

So, perhaps, in the not so distant future, we might travel back in time to save our planet from catastrophic climate change or restore its biodiversity or prevent a war between the US and China. Or, conversely, accidentally cause a paradox that creates multiple histories. 

A dystopian utopia?

But importantly, all these mind-blowingly wonderous things, previously only science fiction, would be orchestrated by superintelligent machines without the hindsight gained from some two million years of human evolution. 

So, what is two million years of evolution worth? Will the new-found freedom of “anything is possible” moderate humankind’s hubris and irrationality, or have the opposite effect?

AI’s underlying script is composed of algorithms, and an algorithm’s definition of success has nothing to do with truth or morality or the right thing to do

Because of these often-exuberant human tendencies, combined with an unknown entity that thinks for itself, the technological singularity has prompted myriad concerns about bias and ethics. 

That is, AI’s underlying script is composed of algorithms, and an algorithm’s definition of success has nothing to do with truth or morality or the right thing to do when simultaneously faced with multiple dilemmas. 

For reasons such as this, AI and the Singularity are both the subject of fear and hope. Experts are diametrically opposed. Which has led to the establishment of institutions to assess and advise on the ethics of AI. 

One of these is Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics in AI, launched last June. Comprised mainly of professors and students of philosophy, its purpose is to tackle AI ethical issues such as “face recognition, voter profiling, brain machine interfaces, weaponised drones, and the global impact of AI on employment.” All of which evoke significant public concern.

I have ceased to think; therefore, I am not!

John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” in 1956. He defined it succinctly as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines.”

From a human perspective, artificial general intelligence (AGI) — a human-level of intellect and learning capacity — might be described as moving from a machine-state of unconsciousness to a machine-state of virtual consciousness. Whatever that might be or look like.

A more elaborate definition of AI by Daniel Faggella, the head of research at Emerj, goes like this: 

Not just a replication of human intelligence but a simulation of an autonomous being.

In the pursuit of profits 

Exponential profitability is undoubtedly the primary goal of contemporary big business. Hugely profitable companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple, are testimony to this. And they are all using and pursuing more advanced levels of AI at breakneck speed.

So, how much will AI contribute to the global economy? Estimates flow freely, and details are often scant.

Research and advisory company Gartner, forecast that business derived from AI globally, would be worth $US3.9 trillion by 2022.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimates that AI will contribute US$15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. 

Well-known tech investor and entrepreneur, Tej Kohli, however, has declared that “conventional wisdom was too cautious” — significantly elevating the potential worth of AI to US$150 trillion by 2025.

Putting it all in perspective: forests are the best technology

These, of course, are massive sums. But to balance the significance of the Singularity, we must place it in a much broader context. 

We depend on nature for our existence, and nature depends on biodiversity for its existence. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is now a planetary emergency. See legendary naturalist David Attenborough’s witness statement, A Life on Our Planet — an awe-inspiring but fear-provoking wakeup call. 

In dollar terms, The World Economic Forum’s New Nature Economy Report 2020 shows that US$44 trillion of economic value generation depends on nature and its services. 

Of course, the dollar amount is meaningless if nature itself is compromised. And suffice to say, forests are by far the best technology for capturing and locking away carbon, as David Attenborough points out.

Researchers estimate that 15 billion trees are cut down each year, and since the advent of agriculture, about 12,000 years ago, the number of trees on our planet has been reduced by 46 per cent.

So, unless we shift our focus from profit to prudence, and make saving the planet the priority, all else is of little consequence. 

Technology is just a tool

In a 2020 McKinsey & Company report, automation, digital technologies, and AI technologies were identified as the biggest factors in future economic growth, accounting for 60 per cent of “potential productivity growth”.

The report emphasised that adopting automation is imperative because many countries will need to double their current productivity if they are to sustain their historical growth rates. 

Of course, this is impossible. Doubling productivity means doubling consumption on a planet with finite resources. And even if it meant producing the same amount in half the time, it doesn’t meet the goals of economic growth nor the goals of sustainability.

So, will AI and automation render labour and jobs more or less obsolete and at the same time compromise our planet’s ecosystem services? 

Pro-technology pundits argue that AI and automation will simply create new jobs to replace the old ones. Though we might wonder what these jobs will be like if we have machines doing the thinking for us. 

The same pundits also argue that technology will avert the climate change crisis and regenerate the deteriorating health of our planet.

But as Jordan Nguyen writes in his excellent book, A Human’s Guide to the Future: “Technology is just a tool. What’s fascinating is how we choose to use this tool, for tomorrow may be bright and rich with experience, but that’s up to us. It should never be about the technology itself. It’s all about the human odyssey, what we learn about ourselves along the way.”

Nick Bostrom is not so optimistic: “Far from being the smartest possible biological species, we are probably better thought of as the stupidest possible biological species capable of starting a technological civilisation — a niche we filled because we got there first, not because we are in any sense optimally adapted to it.”

Let’s hope he’s wrong!

So, the real question is not whether a machine can write a bestseller or compose a symphony or allow us to travel through time, but does human evolution begin with “man in the state of nature” and simply end in an “algorithm”?

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

­Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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