Will computers become the new form of life on Earth?
Yesterday, I read a news article about alien intelligence on the BBC news website ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11041449 ). Astronomer Dr Seth Shostak announced that it was likely that if alien intelligence existed then it was likely it would be ‘artificial’. He works for the SETI institute, an organisation devoted to searching for extra terrestrial life by scouring the skies for any transmissions coming from other stars and galaxies that might give evidence that life exists ‘out there’. He declared that rather than scanning radio waves and microwave emissions from other solar systems in the hope of finding another living, breathing biological life form that might be trying to communicate with us, it would be more likely that it is an extra-terrestrial computer that is trying to talk to us.
His conclusions were brought about by the logic that since we discovered radio transmission (about 150 years ago see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_radio ) we have developed artificial intelligence (computers that ‘think’) immensely. He implies that in the next 50 years we are likely to have computers or machines that think entirely independently.
For a rather spooky example of how artificial intelligence is making its way into computer games see this youtube clip of Microsoft’s new artificial character “Milo” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPIbGnBQcJY
Perhaps Dr Shostak is over-egging things a bit. In the early days of computers, scientists thought it would be easy to program computers recognise words and faces. It was a catastrophic failure and getting computers to ‘think’ like we do have proved notoriously difficult ever since.
Have a play with some online artificial intelligence: have a conversation with ‘cleverbot’ – a computer programme designed to respond intelligently to you. Go to www.cleverbot.com and have a text chat with it. Impressed?
In 1996, IBM’s computer ‘Deep Blue’ finally beat the Chess Champion Gary Kasparov in a six-match game of chess. The computer won, but it not do so through ‘intelligence’ – but by sheer overwhelming computer power. The computer could analyse 200 million positions a second and simply could evaluate more possibilities that the human brain could. This landmark was no more a landmark than the advent of the electronic calculator that can perform calculations far more rapidly than the human mind can.
Our brains are wired to respond and recognise intuitively to faces, sounds, smells, words and any other sensation you care to throw at it. How long does it take you to recognise the face of a friend or family member? Mere milliseconds: a section of your brain at the back of your head (in the ‘occipital lobe’) does this automatically. We start to develop this in the first months of life. Computers are still pretty terrible at doing this despite the vast processing power afforded them.
Maybe Dr Shostak is right – it may only be a matter of time before our intelligence is superseded by our own inventions. Perhaps I am cynical of his prediction because I am scared. I do however doubt that a living, breathing, intelligent organism with emotions and a sense of self-worth (such as us) would take measures to stop ourselves becoming subservient to our computers