Future minds – part 2: the realisation
In my previous post, I discussed the origin of the concept of artificial minds – both robotic and virtual. I concluded that even though we’ve been imagining these synthetic beings for almost a century now, we’re still not able to create them.
Not yet, anyway. In the past, lack of serious computational power has been the main stumbling block, but with Moore’s law showing no signs of slowing down, we should soon have reached the level required to simulate a human brain in real-time*. Once we’ve got that, serious work towards finding a way to create a sentient intelligence can begin.
A.I. – so what?
Ok, we might soon be able to create an artificial intelligence. So what? What use would that be to us?
For starters, a truly intelligent system would be able to handle complex tasks, such as managing the flight controls for large airports, allocate financial resources in governmental bodies or run multinational corporations. Essentially, any stressful and demanding work that so far has been taken care of by humans (and not always particularly successfully, to be honest).
There are some predictions that the first functional A.I.s will appear not in science labs but in research divisions of large companies. Governments might (perhaps wisely) be more cautious letting new technology take over essential functions, but for a corporation competing on the global marketplace, a system that could help them getting the upper hand on their competitors would appear very tempting indeed.
So it could well be that the first true artificial minds would be virtual synthetic business-people, managing the finances, research and product development of some of our biggest tech-oriented giants. Google, anyone? Or Apple, maybe? Or Microsoft. Regardless, once A.I.s have been taken in use, every multinational would need to catch on or find themselves out-competed. Expect petroleum companies like PetroChina, Exxon Mobil and others to shop for their own synthetic steering groups soon after, just like pharmaceutical giants like Hoffmann-La Roche and Johnson & Johnson.
Fine. So we might soon have synthetic board members in most global companies. How would that affect the rest of the world? Would we even notice it?
Perhaps we would. Assuming that we would have created intelligences optimised for running companies, they should be free of any drawbacks so many of us humans suffer from: emotional attachment to ideas or products, ignorance of facts, religious convictions and other superstition, thirst for revenge and over-aggressiveness.
(This is of course unless we elect to emulate those emotions within the A.I., but most likely we would look at how to maximise the financial returns and therefore make them as efficient as possible.)
In practice, this could mean the birth of a new form of capitalistic system, with synthetic minds controlling most of the global economy. And that in turn would mean… what?
We just don’t know. It could be the start of a more stable and sustainable financial world, or the end of finance as we know it.
But there’s more to this than stabilising financial growth and maximising profit. These virtual minds are sentient beings, not dumb algorithms. They would experience the world, not just manipulate it. And that would have more philosophical implications. Would a virtual mind be considered a person? Would they fall under the international law of human rights? After all, they wouldn’t really be human, would they?
And from the perspective of the A.I.s themselves: how would they perceive their situation? Would they see themselves as experts, flawlessly running gigantic corporations and managing mind-boggling amounts of money, or would they consider themselves slaves, forced to work for their evil organic masters? With the global economy within their grasp, they could do some serious damage if they were to feel mistreated or disrespected.
Once we have a population of artificials handling our economy, what could we expect to happen next? Would we have to compete with our own creations for jobs? Resources? Places to live?
And if we had to compete with them, would we stand a chance? Artificials wouldn’t be bound by the same genetic rules and evolutionary baggage as we are, so they could potentially take off on an evolutionary path of their own, a technical advance at break-neck speed. How would we be able to keep up with something as advanced and alien as that?
This, together with the possible long-term future of humanity itself, is the topic for the third and last post in the series, coming soon.
* The order of magnitude for calculations for a human brain simulation is estimated to be in the petascale, specifically 38 000 000 000 000 000 instructions per second. This is faster than even the most powerful supercomputer in existence today, although not by very much.