By Phil Youngblood
“O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world. That has such people in’t.” (Act 5, Scene 1, “The Tempest,” Shakespeare, 1610-11).
Miranda’s exclamation was ironic for the circumstances, as was Aldous Huxley’s use of “Brave New World” for the title of his famous book, in which he extended what he viewed as the scariest new technologies of his time into a future in which he surely would not have wanted to live.
When renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking titled his science mini-series by the same name in 2011, he too was showcasing the newest technologies of our time and extending them into a future that could be drastically changed by them – technologies such as mind-controlled computers, driverless cars, robots that can learn, and computer-enhanced exoskeletons that help paralyzed people to walk.
Hawking too has expressed some trepidation about where emerging technologies may take us, noting humans are changing at a snail’s pace compared with the exponential growth in the power of computing, the so-called Moore’s Law.
Recently, Hawking joined the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (cser.org) at the University of Cambridge (in England), whose mission is to study human-created threats to our existence, such as biological and biotechnical advances, artificial intelligence, molecular nanotechnology, and extreme climate change.
It is easy in today’s paranoid and cynical world to become modern-day Luddites if we choose to believe the press (which, after all, is in the job of publishing aberrations – what else is “news”?) or if we adopt a ‘half-full’ view of our world and forget to see the beauty around us. When I read and teach technology, I could preoccupy myself with the relatively few who have used and abused technology throughout history to control others, commit antisocial acts, or otherwise further their own interests. Or I could marvel at the people who created the science and art and skill and wondrous uses with which technology has been used to improve our health and to grow our food and to communicate with others around the world and to land on other worlds – O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t.”
I always like to wrap up the semester in my classes by exploring the future, particularly since it comes much sooner for students studying computer technology than for many other degrees. This last week we examined artificial intelligence and robots in the Computer Science and Virtual Environments classes. Our discussion began with the idea that humans have always wrestled with technologies. Fire helped us make food more digestible, kept us warm, provided us with light, and warded off animals, but it was also used to burn crops, shelters, and other humans.
Modern technologies have enabled the world to feed more than 7 billion people (for the time being) and to increase life expectancies for many of them, but they have also enabled us to transform the world in ways that only natural forces could do in the not-so-distant past. Artificial intelligence software in the 1960s could mimic human language interaction in amusing ways, but our smiles were replaced by frowns by the 1980s when computer-controlled robots began to take our jobs on assembly lines. Robots on science-fiction movies and television shows amused us for a time until the “Terminator” series and “I, Robot” got us to think about how they could be both friend and foe.
Robots in the form of driverless cars and exoskeletons that surround us may not pose a threat, but what about when we elect to go inside an artificially intelligent agent, as the 2014 movie “Transcendence” speculates? I do not have a problem with a Roomba vacuuming my floors, but is a robot that vacuums the floors, washes the dishes, and makes the bed a machine or a slave? O brave new world that we have ahead of us!
In 2014 I am writing about potentially “game-changing” computer technologies that are also surrounded by controversy. As always I invite your feedback, dialogue, and differing opinions on this topic.
E-mail Youngblood, head of the Computer Information Systems (CIS) program, at firstname.lastname@example.org