Integration or Extinction: When Fiction Becomes Science


There is a joke when someone encounters new technology. They say, "What a time to be alive." Whether it's cars that drive themselves or robots that deliver your groceries, the future is coming at us faster than ever before.


One reason, I think, is because of the pandemic. Previously known and little used technology like telehealth and Zoom meeting became the norm in a matter of weeks, not years. Necessity is the mother of invention was a spot on sentiment, it seems.


I write near-future thrillers. So my job as an author is to extrapolate what is happening now and, for lack of a better word, guess at what the future might hold for society. To do that I follow a lot of futurists, technology blogs and papers, and read countless articles about what future tech might look like.


One thing I found interesting was the emphasis on artificial intelligence lately. It's always been a hot topic, but recently there seems to be an upsurge in chatter about it. Which, of course, got me excited.


AI is currently touted as the answer to questions from fields like neurology, business, space logistics, and global security. But what are the practical uses for AI that we are seeing right now? And what might that mean in the future?


A recent article I was reading as research for my next book, also in the near-future series, has to do with augmenting human intelligence with an artificial one. Startlingly, with all that I've been reading, it seems we are on the precipice of a new kind of human. An evolutionary step aided and augmented by machine.


Sound like science fiction? It was just a few years ago. Now it is imminent. Advancement is literally moving faster than it was fifty years ago. There's a name for this phenomenon. It's called the Law of Accelerating Returns. Coined by futurist Ray Kursweil, it explains that advanced societies like ours can accelerate at a faster rate than lesser advanced societies because we are advanced.


This would mean some extravagant changes to our world in the near-future. Which, as an author, make me happy dance...with caution.


So, going back to AI, it still seems like so much science fiction, right? We know about it mostly through movies and television with characters like Jarvis, the all-knowing, calm, somewhat witty helper to Tony Stark. Or maybe the homicidal, yet child-like Turk in the Sarah Connor Chronicles, relentlessly stalking her and her progeny. Fantastic and frightening, they exist in the realm of pure fiction. So it's hard to envision what that means for you and me.


Let me break it down. If you have a smartphone, you use AI. Siri and Google are already a part of many user's daily lives. I ask my phone to look things up when in conversation, to find the best route to my next appointment, etc. I'm already a thousand times smarter than adults were when I was a kid simply due to access to information. Weather in the next county, what the president said an hour ago, how many walnuts fit into a mug. You need to know something, however specific or obscure, and you can. Instantly.


We also have the kinds of AI that can do very specific tasks better than humans. Calculations, games, identification of images, very narrow scope type of tasks. These are the types of artificial intelligence networks in use already.


We have yet to make a computer that rivals our general knowledge. Like being able to look at an object in shadow and realize it's three-dimensional and not a black and gray 2D collage. Perception comes incredibly easily to us. We've had millions of years to perfect that particular skill. Physics, though most of us don't claim to be experts, is second nature to us in terms of balance and movement through three-dimensional space for example.


But if progress is exponential, then what is on the near horizon for us? Moore's Law states that maximum computer power doubles approximately every two years. TWO YEARS. Though it may take a decade or two for AI to reach the level of intelligence considered general knowledge, once it does...given the rate at which advancement accelerates, we're looking at only twenty-five to thirty years.


After that, the jump to super-intelligent AI's is just around the corner. If we create a demi-god if you will. Being thousands of times smarter than we are, I wonder what that would mean for us. Not in the 'exterminate humanity' kind of horror movie terms, but in the how will it change us?


When asked about his Neurolink project and whether or not artificial intelligence will be the end of us Elon Musk intimated that in his estimate, the only way for humans to ensure their survival was to join it. So is that what is coming? Integration or extinction?


It's an interesting question. One I hope to explore in my new book. I must say, though, the more I read the more I wish that the looming monster the scientists are warning us about really was only fiction.

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