Who are we? Why are we here and where are we going? If anxiety about climate change, financial meltdowns, terrorism, immigration, pandemics, and the robot that recently went rogue on Twitter isn’t enough to worry about, we’ve got existential questions to contend with. Mostly we haven’t though, largely because a daily deluge of digital distractions means we rarely get much further than worrying about why BBC Three is now only available online or whether answering an instant message during sex is less rude than not responding until tomorrow.
The best bit of advice for such complex conundrums probably comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. The advice is simply: “Don’t Panic!” This is wise counsel; especially if instead of looking forwards, you look backwards over a few thousand years and notice that the human race is more or less still here. We’re survived ice ages, financial collapses, religiously inspired terrorism, immigration, pandemics and the threat of new technology before. We’ve even endured Paris Hilton, Ed Miliband and Paul Daniels, at least one of which turned out to be all right really.
None of this means we should become complacent. As the great economist JK Galbraith once said” There will be no harm in making mild preparations for our destiny.” Furthermore, while the thought of robots stealing our jobs and perhaps even our children’s souls is a concern, it could be that the pace of developments in computing means that it isn’t the clumsy idiot savant software than we have today that we need to worry about, but what their silicon descendants might be capable of doing in 20 or thirty years time. If human minds as sharp as Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk believe that true artificial intelligence (broad or general AI) might be the last invention that the human race ever makes, perhaps we should stop looking at Rich Cats of Instagram and pay proper attention to what’s really going on.
I really have no idea how the distant future will pan out, but my best guess is that we’ll more or less be alright, especially if we, the human race, can somehow remain humane and coalesce around a common vision of what our new technology is actually for. Technology is a tool. It is a way. It is a means. It has never been, and never should be, an end it itself. Technology should only be used to enhance or compliment human thinking and relationships, never to replace them. Any wealth that accumulates from the application of such technology should also be gently persuaded to trickle towards those individuals who find themselves on the wrong side of many of these marvels.
I am hopeful that as AI and robotics evolves and starts to behave more like us this will shine an especially strong spotlight on what it is that humans actually are and what they do best. Nobody expects a second renaissance as a result of artificial intelligence, but it would be nice if real human stupidity were diluted and that we congratulated ourselves about the fact that it’s only humans, not machines, that are capable of creating real joy and that imagination, along with empathy, do not appear to be computable.
In the meantime, rejoice in the knowledge that even the smartest robot in the room still struggles to make a decent cup of tea and is totally bewildered by why humans might want their tea, along with their pizza, delivered by drone when they appear to be pondering the nature of their own existence through a poem by Shelly. Illogical.