I clearly remember the moment it really sank in that the world as we know it has become almost unrecognisable from a year ago. It would be hard not to remember really, because it happened only two days prior to me writing this. Which is not to say it previously escaped my notice that COVID-19 has devastated almost every aspect of our lives, and our livelihoods: I know people who have had it, and fortunately recovered. I’ve been following the news avidly, waiting for the announcement of a vaccine. I haven’t seen any of my family since lockdown started, because I’m so worried I might unwittingly have it and pass it on to them.
The moment I refer to was seemingly innocuous. I belatedly switched on the TV in the hope of catching the end of the Formula 1 race in Turkey, to see if Lewis Hamilton had managed to clinch the 2020 drivers’ championship – it was pretty much a foregone conclusion, but I still had to know. As expected, I saw him leaping into the waiting arms of his pit crew in celebration, so I began to step away from the TV before something started to nag at the back of my mind. I stopped, turned around, and waited a couple of seconds for my ‘spidey senses’ to fire up. The first things I realised were superficial: he looked too young, he didn’t have this year’s hairdo, and he was wearing the wrong colour overalls. Then I realised that what had struck me was that people weren’t social distancing, or wearing masks. That was the moment I knew I’d truly become acclimatised to the ‘new normal’.
Many believe that artificial intelligence (AI) will unlock the door to more effective ways for humanity to conquer, or at least better cope with, catastrophes in the future. And catastrophes there will undoubtedly be: the Spanish flu of 1918 is considered to be the last true pandemic, but we’ve had near misses in the recent past with the likes of bird flu, Ebola and MERS. Oh, and of course SARS, which is curiously the name of both a virus and our state tax collector (as if there’s any difference). There can be little doubt that climate change is also going to upset our precarious existence, and probably sooner than most of us realise.
The utility monster
I can’t imagine anyone ignoring the three words above, but I’ve put them in bold just in case. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so if you’ve got to this point you simply have to read this article by the BBC technology journalist Richard Fisher: www.dataweek.co.za/*nov20-digimind1. If things like utility monsters and deontological violations tickle your fancy, you can delve further into the main source of Fisher’s research at www.dataweek.co.za/*nov20-digimind2 (be warned, it’s a whitepaper that is very long, and very dry).
Having grown up fascinated by the cerebral sort of science fiction written by the likes of Isaac Asimov and George Orwell, more than stuff like Star Wars, I’ve always been fascinated by this idea of… not artificial intelligence, so much as artificial consciousness. It puts me in mind of the late, great physicist Richard Feynman (who worked on the Manhattan Project and the formulation of quantum mechanics), who famously said in a 1983 documentary series, “it’s fun to imagine.”
Perhaps we’ll never create something that can truly supersede humankind. After all, it is very unlikely. But then it was very unlikely that we would ever land a man on the moon, or find evidence of water on Mars, or send a Tesla Roadster into outer space, or witness a very orange, “very stable genius” “covfefe” his way into America’s White House (and soon to be dragged out, kicking and screaming, by the look of things).
If the idea of an artificial consciousness still sounds too far-fetched, consider for a moment that a microscopic virus, which exists somewhere between what we consider ‘life’ and a simple organic structure, has nevertheless managed to existentially upend the most advanced lifeform that we are aware of ever having existed: us.
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