AI: Say Hello to the New Boss

The human brain is the single most complex structure in the universe. More complex than the fusion reactor which is our sun. More complex than the dance of the planets held in their orbits around the line of the ecliptic encircling the sun. More complex than black holes or the mysterious, weirdly counterintuitive interaction of subatomic particles at the quantum level.

And what do we gain from this complexity? Consciousness. Self-awareness. The ability to think, to dream a thing from a steam engine to a quantum computer and to build it.

Two of the hottest trends in computing today are exhilarating, and worrisome. Big money is pouring into the fields of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. The ultimate goal: to make a machine that thinks.

The commercial benefits of AI are many, and described below. A functioning quantum computer could pack enough computational power to allow AI to equal or exceed that of the brain.

Google, Facebook, NASA, and Amazon are putting serious money into research and acquisition of these technologies. Google and NASA jointly bought the first commercially available quantum computer, manufactured by the Canadian company D-Wave. This despite controversy in academic circles about whether the computer is actually faster than classical computers.

Thinking machines

But the focus of this article is artificial intelligence. There is a massive private and government effort to achieve machine intelligence within the next 20 years. The best example, and the company which is leading the way, is Google. The firm spent $400 million earlier this year to purchase DeepMind, a London based AI company.

One of the leading engineers and researchers in the field, Ray Kurzweil, also a famous spokesman for AI and machine consciousness (he also invented the flatbed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, and dozens of other breakthrough technologies), now works for Google. Kurzweil, who believes we can live forever and that computers will gain consciousness within ten years, is now Google’s director of engineering.

Google has spent billions in just the last year buying up every machine learning and robotics company it can find, Boston Dynamics being among the most notable. It produces spectacular, terrifyingly real military robots.

In fact, Google’s efforts are being called by observers, investors and researchers the Manhattan Project of AI.

While Google also hired Regina Dugan, the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the inventors of the Internet, it is Kurzweil who has for years been the public face of AI, as well the chief popularisor of the term “singularity”, coined by mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge.

Wake up it’s over

The so-called Technological Singularity signifies the moment computers become self aware and, at computational speeds millions of times faster than current computers, begin writing code to make themselves smarter and more capable than all the computing power in existence today.

Why are Google and other firms putting such enormous resources and capital into this research? Simply put, to better handle the mind boggling amount of data generated by one billion people using Google everyday.

Google’s knowledge graph consists of 800 million concepts and billions of relationships between them. This vast network already begins to resemble the neural networks of the human brain, so much so that DeepMind, before it agreed to allow itself to be acquired by what is now the most powerful company in the world, required Google to assemble an ethics board to govern machine learning and human-computer relations.

Whether a post-singularity computer consciousness will abide by the ethics board’s provisos is another question.

It takes a mind

The huge data sets amassed by the technology giants require at least human-level of intelligence, greatly augmented of course but with basically human levels of relevancy judgment and, more importantly, natural language ability.

This latter is key. Some say it is the basis of human consciousness itself. To read and understand language is what truly sets us apart from computers and every living creature. Google has already begun the unimaginable task of scanning every book ever written into its already huge data sets, and creating the algorithms that grant computers the ability to grasp natural language is essential to making sense of all this information.

All this so that Google can answer your question before you ask it. According to Kurzweil, the Manchester Guardian says, Google will be able to do this because “it will have read every email you’ve ever written, every document, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself,”

Sum of all knowledge

According to Kurzweil, “Computers are on the threshold of reading and understanding the semantic content of a language, but not quite at human levels. So IBM’s Watson (which beat champion Ken Jennings on Jeopardy) is a pretty weak reader on each page, but it read the 200 million pages of Wikipedia. And basically what I’m doing at Google is to try to go beyond what Watson could do. To do it at Google scale.

“Which is to say have the computer read tens of billions of pages. Watson doesn’t understand the implications of what it’s reading. It’s doing a sort of pattern matching. It doesn’t understand that if John sold his red Volvo to Mary that involves a transaction or possession and ownership being transferred. So we are going to encode that, really try to teach it to understand the meaning of what these documents are saying.”

Once computers can read their own instructions, and in effect reinvent and improve themselves at light speed — a process that took millions of years to produce our brains through natural evolution — what then?

Vinge, who wrote a famous paper addressing this issue in the early nineties, posits a number of possible outcomes, ranging from annihilation of the global infestation of humans by these new god-like intelligences, to a benign partnership in which man merges with them to create a Utopian world of augmented humans and computers working to eradicate disease, poverty, war, even the effects of aging, giving us all virtually unlimited lifespans.

Kurzweil is convinced that the latter outcome is the most likely, and, since he predicts the Singularity will occur within 20 years, in his lifetime (he is 66), he takes over 200 dietary supplements daily as well as other measures to ensure he’s still around to participate in and benefit from immortality.

Google wins

What does Google get? Billions in individually-targeted advertising revenue. And maybe a seat on the board of directors of the new computer-superhuman alliance.

Really, Google knows that it benefits hugely from every step achieved in the creation of AI, each being a refinement in its corporate mission to tailor search query responses more accurately and precisely, and giving advertisers unparalleled access to those most likely to purchase their goods and services.

Godhood and immortality are what Kurzweil is after. Google and other big-data firms are happy to help him achieve his dreams because they just happen to spin off technologies that benefit their business models and pad their bottom line. Or maybe I’m being cynical, and Google really believes in their corporate motto: “Don’t be evil.”

But Google (and other big tech giants) are pouring billions into making thinking, autonomous machines. It is a certainty that huge technological advancements will be made. The question is more “When?” than “If?”.

Her (Wikipedia)

AI infants

AI is already infesting the Internet, albeit of a nascent, unaware form called bots. These come in the form of chatterbots, which we speak to daily on the phone when we call a business or government agency; and querybots, which scour the web looking up relevant data they have been tasked to locate and deliver. Bot traffic consumes 60 percent of the bandwidth of the entire Internet, up from 40 percent two years ago.

AI is already becoming a cultural meme. Two movies released in the past few months are based on the concept, Transcendence with Johnny Depp taking a dystopian view and Her with Joaquin Phoenix taking a more benign approach.

Think smartphones have made a huge impact on people’s daily lives in their 20 years on the scene?

Wait another 20 years; the fun is just beginning.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Alan Kaye.

(Next week: How quantum computers work and their role in redefining computing and making artificial intelligence a reality.)