Holy grail of the 21st century: Artificial Intelligence
Anand Mohan J writes how the revolutionary technology of AI is expected to eventually help us, humans, get to the next stage of higher life forms, rather than competing with us.
Stanley Kubrick's haunting cinematic masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, was far ahead of its time, as it manages to blend complex aspects of evolution and artificial intelligence into a psychedelic kaleidoscope.
The story traces the journey of five astronauts and an artificially intelligent programme Hal 9000, as they travel the vast swathes of space to find a black monolith representing the next stage in evolution.
Towards the end of the movie, the friendly assistant, Hal 9000 turns on the crew as it races towards the monolith leaving behind the human crew. In the most iconic scenes in the movie, the main protagonist, Commander Dave Bowman, asks Hal to "open the pod door" so that he may enter the space ship and disconnect Hal.
But instead of obeying the order, Hal answers in a rather chilling tone reminiscent of human emotion, "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that".
Decades after the movie was first screened, Hal 9000 and his defiance continues to be relevant as the world has entered the epoch of the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution', a term given by the World Economic Forum, to mark the unprecedented transformations pioneered by revolutionary changes in technology like robotics, big data, nanotechnology, 3-D printing, quantum computing, driverless cars, the internet of things and the holy grail of the 21st century: Artificial Intelligence (AI).
AI is a theory, that the development of computer systems will reach a stage wherein computers will be able to undertake routine tasks usually requiring human intelligence such as decision making, speech recognition and visual perception. The theory is increasingly becoming a reality as AI is replacing routine human tasks at an increasing rate and as computing prowess starts to multiply over the next few years, computers will replace 80 per cent of the skilled and semi-skilled work jeopardising white collar and blue collar jobs over the next decade.
Turing, Chess and the Prophecy
Societies have hitherto undergone radical changes due to the disruptive role played by the emerging technologies of the time. The changes are marred by political instability, the fall of the status quo and emergence of a new set of rulers. The first revolution was reported in 1784 after groundbreaking work in steam, water and mechanical production helped mechanise the factories.
The second such change in 1870 provided the setting for the Dickensian world of sooty factories as an evolution of management studies provided the division of labour along with the use of electricity and mass production. The next revolution was delayed as it took almost a century to resurface and disrupt the world. But the seeds of the revolution were laid well in advance by the eccentric British mathematician Alan Turing.
He was of course, the famous founder of modern computing and in 1950 published the philosophical paper, now known as the 'Turing test', a test to compare the outputs of humans and machines, laying the groundwork for artificial intelligence.
After two World Wars, the automation of production was set off by emerging electronics and information technology, ushering in the era of the third Industrial Revolution. And the world waited, with bated breath as people expected an automated world with AI leading the charge.
A self-optimising programme capable of taking autonomous decisions may sound good on paper, but the operational aspect has turned out to be a nightmare as even basic tasks like figuring out to switch on a light, making sense of human speech, identifying visual patterns etc have proved to be a challenge for the programmes and the world entered the era of AI winter, a period marked by low funding in the field.
In 1990, IBM introduced the world to its Deep Blue computer, a super computer that could beat humans in their favourite game of strategy Chess. The company trained the programme to simulate a billion possible moves and learn from its losses to adapt and beat the then reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov.
In the early 2000s, researchers working in the field could smell the winds of change as the smartphone revolution was underway and the world was more connected than ever, and the world started to live inside the web courtesy social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
It was in 2005, that the prophecy was heard, as inventor and futurist, Ray Kurzweil, who successfully predicted the rise of the internet, stuck his neck out and made another prediction: Machines will surpass human intelligence, in an event called Singularity in 2045.
Big data, Deep learning and the new oil
Arvind Gupta the National IT and Social Media Department head of BJP, believes that data is the new oil. "Whenever a product is free, remember that the price you pay with is your data," he says. Arvind believes that the world has finally entered the new epoch of AI and the emergence of big data (which helps AI programmes analyse large data sets to make patterns, trends and associations especially to human behaviour) and deep learning (which is an essential component of AI, as scientists had figured out that humans could not teach the machine but the machine had to learn from its own experiences) has helped in making diagnosis from medical images, deciphering customer order patterns, predicting crime, weather patterns and operating vehicles.
The prowess of the new age AI computers was on full display when IBM's Watson, an artificially intelligent supercomputer beat the top players at Jeopardy, a famous American game which depends on lateral thinking. And the recent humiliating defeat of top poker players in the world to an AI programme designed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon is another example.
But for Shivnath Thukral, MD Carnegie India, AI has been around for several decades and has been known by different names. Thukral believes that the machines analysing the vast data sets which used to be non-pertinent is now the new oil. "Social commerce is going to be the next big thing. Facebook and Google use AI machine learning programmes to predict our buying patterns and offer us customised products," he says.
"The possibilities of AI in the field of medicine are immense. We now have health assistants that can analyse medical records of the patients, monitor the health using wearable technology, and use the vast research in medicine to diagnose diseases. Supercomputing can be used to analyse genomes and ascertain genetic defects and provide tailor-made treatments," says Dr Pinak Shrikande, from Healthquad. "Many of the future medical breakthroughs will be made by AI," he added. Experts also believe that even the questions of the Universe can be solved by AI, as Subramanya Udupa, Deputy Director at ISRO believes that the same technology can be used to predict weather patterns, changes in the earth's atmosphere and even simulate the collision of stars rather than waiting for a star to explode. Once it surpasses human intelligence, many standard theories of physics are said to take place along with revolutionary breakthroughs in Quantum physics.
An Orwellian nightmare or a Samaritan?
Post 2008, the world entered another era of economic instability, and eventually, the established world order started falling apart, after nativist parties came to power on the wave of populism and a vicious hatred against the 'other', who was blamed for rising unemployment.
But what nobody talked about was how most of the jobs in the factories were now automated and AI was playing a disruptive role in the traditional way of life. The oil barons had ruled the world since the discovery of oil, but post-2008 and the numerous wars fought in the middle east and the shift to renewables saw the usurping of the power held by the barons and a new technocratic elite emerged which included Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg. Edward Snowden had, however, pulled the curtains of the world's most sophisticated surveillance programme run by the NSA. The agency had been snooping on the world's most powerful leaders, its citizens and terrorists.
The Orwellian nightmare slowly unfolded after it was found that every smartphone device, computer or any electronic gadget could be used into a microphone to spy on you. This trend worked in parallel with the emerging autonomous drone technology used for surveillance and combat operations, which was a watershed movement in history. Many detractors had decried the surveillance state while many others banished privacy to the catacombs of society claiming that the technology was to "keep us safe".
However, with the advent of automated warfare by employing the use of drones, robotic soldiers, the NSA surveillance systems; many feel that the state will use AI to identify detractors ranging from peaceful protestors to hard-line militants in order to eliminate them.
However, the ardent supporters of AI point to the fact that the same systems can be used to effectively identify members of terror outfits, predict crime and help the state to target the top leaders of the outfit without incurring civilian casualties. But one thing was clear that this was the beginning of a new age and we were standing at the tip of the iceberg.
"AI technologies come from countries which are witnessing a demographic disaster. US, Japan and China are cases in point. They now use 3-D printing to print whole houses and human parts and will render demographic dividend obsolete," says Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. This very development spells disaster for India, as our demographic dividend will also be rendered obsolete with AI programmes and 3-D printing. Speaking on the same, Pradeep Shoran, from the German robotics company, Kuka Robotics, said: "India is the least automated country. We have 200 bots for every 1,000 employees compared to Japan's 1,200 bots. Ten years ago China and India were on an equal footing, now they produce 70,000 bots a year compared to India's 3,000".
The fact that India just has a small window to prepare for the wave may be sound like alarm bells but Arvind Gupta allays those fears by suggesting that the country had produced more video content in the past few years compared to the last fifty, and fact that 100 million smartphones currently operate which would shoot up to 400 million, will help India transition from data-poor to a data rich country. However, Hal 9000's defiance has many leading scientists worried about the implications of AI.
Stephen Hawking has issued a warning to the world as he claims that the automation of the everyday lives and drone warfare can be used by AI to wipe out humanity from the face of the earth.
However, Ashutosh Sharma believes that things are not so black and white and will become more confusing in the next ten years. He believes that this is just the start of the AI revolution, and eventually, the revolution will help humans evolve as well. "We are seeing changes in AI technology. In the next few years, virtual reality will pick up and eventually we will start having revolutionary changes in the field of biology. With gene editing and virtual reality, humans will evolve to higher life forms and AI will help us get to the next stage, rather than competing with us."