How We Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bots

A sharp dichotomy has emerged in the big debate about where technology is taking us (or vice versa). In one high-profile camp are technologists and scientists sounding the alarm about the perils of artificial intelligence. Elon Musk likens AI’s emergence to “summoning the demon,” calling it the biggest single threat to our survival. Stephen Hawking has made a similar argument, fearing that AI will eventually “take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate,” ultimately “superseding” humans altogether.

At the other end are some equally smart thinkers who anticipate a more optimistic scenario—with technology helping solve some of our most intractable problems. Mobile computing pioneer Jeff Hawkins, now a neuroscientist working on AI software that can replicate the learning functions of the brain, argues that machine intelligence will “radically transform our world in the 21st century, similar to how computers transformed our world in the 20th century. I see these changes as almost completely beneficial, indeed thrilling.” Even Al Gore has come around. “We’re going to win this,” he said recently of technology’s higher calling. “The only question is how long it takes.”

History, of course, tells us that reality lies in the murky and very unpredictable middle. While dystopian futurists such as Marx, Toffler, Huxley, Bradbury, Orwell, and Ehrlich have a less than Sterling track record on predictions, there are clear threads of their narratives everywhere around us. Edward Snowden showed how far we’ve come with the emergence of a surveillance state. Philip K. Dick has inspired many current advances in robotics. The guy who blew millions of minds in Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson, is now working as chief futurist at virtual-reality pioneer Magic Leap. Oculus Rift isn’t virtual—it’s here. So is cyberwarfare, as imagined in so many sci-fi tomes; North Korea, Iran, and China are just the latest battlefields. And yes, the robots are starting to replace humans in many places beyond the assembly line.

“Technology can make us more human,

not less.”

But here’s the Toffler-esque future shock: Humanity’s big dance with technology is only getting started. The pace of innovation, dizzying as it may seem over the last generation alone, is accelerating. Technologies in the service of automation—the driving force of human innovation since spears and wheels—are giving way to breakthroughs that hold the potential of humanization. Quantum computing, and the staggering capabilities it has to solve immensely complex problems, is on the horizon. AI applications are arriving in a variety of platforms and capabilities. Computer interfaces are approaching embryonic states of consciousness. Businesses are tapping deeply into social and mobile technologies to connect workers together in unprecedented ways and changing the definition of work. Technology is reinventing education and has profound implications for the future of a diverse workforce and society at large. One inherent promise is that technology can make us more human, not less. More caring. More empathetic. More supportive of our environment and planet. More intelligent, happier, and fulfilled.

The promise of it all is beyond exciting—we’re living on the brink of incredible change. The flip side is that the stakes couldn’t be higher. Modern technology and connectivity offer both challenges and opportunities to peoples around the globe, with dramatic implications for climate change, wealth distribution, diversity, poverty, health care, security, and privacy. Which means we have some deeper thinking to do and critical choices to make in the years ahead if we want to live in a future rich with human possibility and opportunity.

We started this #maketechhuman conversation with World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee’s recent AMA chat on Reddit, and with dinner and video conversations with tech luminaries at TED in Vancouver. But the deeper discussion will continue here to bring more clarity to some big questions: What types of new technologies and applications can and should we be championing and why? What’s real, and when? Which ones raise the biggest red flags? Is the Terminator scenario possible? What are some potentially disastrous consequences we haven’t yet considered? What can’t—or shouldn’t—technology solve at all? How should we go about weighing the benefits against the risks?

Over the next few months, we’d like to tap the wisdom of you, our readers, to include your #maketechhuman intelligence in our reporting on AI and robotics, quantum computing, environmental science, privacy and security, biotechnology, and other issues—and help us sort out the promise from the peril. As Berners-Lee said, “the outcome is not a foregone conclusion, that tech will in fact end up working in humanity’s best interests. But we have a choice! So it is up to us, where ‘us’ is humanity. And in general, about us, I am optimistic—so long as we keep our eyes on the prize.”

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