Artificial Intelligence will have a momentous influence on the future of humankind. It has the potential to transform every aspect of our lives – a power that brings with it a whole raft of moral dilemmas and crucial choices.
At its most caricatural form no discussion of A.I. gets very far before someone mentions the “trolley problem”. A trolley car – perhaps one of Sydney’s new light rail juggernauts? – is about to run over five people directly in its path. By pulling a lever you can divert the train onto another track where it will run over a single person. What do you do?
This is a dilemma for which there is no solution. Somebody has to die and somebody has to take responsibility for not saving them. There are many variations. What if the one person happened to be your daughter? Would you be more likely to save one young person instead of five old people? One attractive person rather than five ugly ones? People of your own race or religion?
In the standard A.I. version of the problem you come burning around a hairpin bend in your self-driving car and are faced with the problem of whether to hit a pedestrian or swerve violently and plunge off a cliff. In this case the decision is made by the car according to the way it has been programmed. The human reaction would almost invariably be to swerve, but a machine told to protect the passenger at all costs would save you rather than the pedestrians. Left to its own devices it might judge you less worthy of survival than the people in its path.
The probability of ever encountering such a scenario is miniscule but A.I. looms so large in the future that every possibility has to be rehearsed and tested. In Machine, Justin Krook examines the utopian and dystopian possibilities of a technological revolution that is already underway.
This fast-moving, absorbing documentary is divided into a series of chapters that look at various applications of A.I., with experts discussing the positive and negative implications. We learn about A.I. companions which allow people to interact with a machine programmed to respond like a human being. There are discussions of driverless cars, and the issue of whether we should let drones decide when it is time to kill an enemy.
In the first case a woman has been able to create a facsimile of her dead husband, who now exchanges messages with her and their friends. This kind of relationship, although it sounds like a morbid fantasy, has great benefits for those trying to cope with grief and loneliness. And then there are the sex-bots – already available from a U.S. manufacturer – glamorous, artificial lovers that never criticise, never complain, never have a headache.
Driverless cars are already in such an advanced stage of development that they should be on the roads in great numbers within the next decade. Regardless of the ‘trolley problem’, they will be much safer than the vehicles piloted by human beings. One expert anticipates a campaign to ban human drivers altogether, apart from recreational circuits where one can pay to have a go at old-fashioned driving.
The military applications of A.I. are being hotly debated in conferences around the world as machines become available that can inflict destruction with a pinpoint efficiency inconceivable to humans. The question is whether this ushers in a more or less humane theatre of war. There may be less ‘collateral damage’, but no chance that a machine will have moral scruples or qualms of conscience about a mission.
The Terminator movies have dramatised a doomsday scenario in which intelligent machines designed for killing have decided humanity is little more than a blight upon the planet. It may be the ultimate science fiction nightmare but it’s also frighteningly plausible. Once we build machines imbued with “super-intelligence”, capable of feats of calculation far in advance of the human mind, we may have abdicated our place as rulers of the world. In the film we catch a tiny, poignant glimpse of the coming apocalypse as we watch the world’s Go champion from South Korea being beaten by a computer.
The underlying message of this documentary that we have an awesome responsibility to get the basics right while this technological revolution is moving from childhood into puberty. Whatever values, whatever code of ethics we instill into these machines will play a vital role in how they evolve, and perhaps how they ultimately deal with us. When we look at the depths of dishonesty, opportunism, megalomania and corruption that distinguishes global politics today it’s hard to imagine our current crop of governments producing machines devoted to truth, justice and fair play.
Ethics and ideals are seriously out-of-fashion. Contemporary politics seems to have only one idea: the maintenance of power. On the current evidence it would be far more likely that a Trump or a Putin would demand that super-intelligent machines inculcate their own selfish values. It’s not far-fetched to imagine a machine programmed to obey even the craziest, most sinister orders of a commander-in-chief. Yet as A.I. inevitably continues to develop there’s every possibilty that computers will outgrow their human masters, understanding the mechanics of power and control while being unconstrained by moral considerations.
A more utopian prospect sees humanity joining with the machine, using A.I. to help eradicate diseases, to grow new cells and body parts, to combat all forms of disability. It’s plausible that the human of the future will be augmented by artificial organs, or able to replace worn-out parts with new ones grown in a laboratory. It’s likely that our brains will be tricked out with electronic implants that enable new forms of communication, stimulate our concentration and productivity.
In the future the line between human and machine will grow increasingly blurry. But as we become more machine-like, it’s imperative that we try and instill a sense of empathy into the electronic super-brains that will control our destinies. Human feelings and imagination are what allow us to maintain a tenuous sense of superiority over the machines, but if we intend to reap the benefits of our own invention we will have to find a way to build machines that can feel sympathetic and protective in regards to their puny neighbours on the planet.
Directed by Justin Krook
Written by James Macluran, Luke Mazzaferro
Starring Nick Bostrom, Rodney Brooks, Eugenia Kuyda, Tim Urban, Toby Walsh, Mikos Kiss, Pindar van Arman
Australia/Germany/Ireland/Japan/Switzerland/USA/UK, rated M, 86 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 December, 2019