The purpose of this article is to put forth three viable future scenarios concerning the co-habitation of man and machine, all of which have been given considerable thought by today’s leading scientists and renowned professors of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Computer Science. These three scenarios will then be discussed as possible phases, one following on from the other, however this approach itself can and will also be problematized.

First Scenario / Phase

The first scenario or phase is that of robots or AI machines serving us, which is basically where we are right now. Various astonishing inventions are either in progress or complete, which help to make our lives easier. For example, the iRobot Home Robots are presently the new ‘revolutionizing’ way to clean the household. The award-winning iRobot Roomba floor vacuuming robots, in particular, include a powerful vacuum and two counter-rotating brushes, designed to really delve into the dirt. It is even designed to detect dirtier areas and spend more time and effort cleaning them. At the end of its cleaning cycle, or when its battery is running low, Roomba 560 automatically makes its way back to its home base to recharge for next time. There is even an iRobot Roomba pet series, specifically designed for pet-loving households, as its cleaning head pulls an incredible amount of ‘pet hair, pet dander, kitty litter and debris off the brushes and into the bin’.

This is just one of the many uses robots have or can have on human lives. IBM’s latest AI creation, ‘Watson’, a computer system which can answer questions asked in natural language, recently outdid the performance of its human counterparts. As a result, many have gone on to predict future uses for such robots. For example, medical centres might use the software to better diagnose diseases. As a patient’s symptoms can suggest many possible causes, a Watson-type program would be advantageous due to its capability to scan medical books faster than any human and suggest the best result. Of course, a human would inevitably make the final diagnosis, meaning the robot would still not be advanced enough to act as a doctor in itself… at least, not yet.

This takes us to our second scenario /phase.

Second Scenario / Phase

Can a robot come to possess enough intelligence to achieve equal status as a human? Not yet, as its failure to pass the Turing test shows. This is a test of robotic intelligence, based on its ability to manifest itself as human, when competing with another human. An observer, usually via chat-format, has to be convinced of the former’s human status, in order for it to pass the test. Though machines have not evolved enough to be mistaken for a human being just yet, it may well be that they are headed in that direction. What is currently lacking in AI robotic engineering is emotion. This is what scientists are presently attempting to at the very least simulate, if not create, in these machines. Though it is still somewhat of a jump to expect the achievement of emotion to establish equality of status between robots and humans, let us for now assume this to be the case.

The question then becomes: if a robot ‘upgrades’ to human status in terms of emotions, assuming it is already superior to us in many ways – as a faster processor, more efficient worker, and so on- how is a human to keep up? Professor Kevin Warwick from the University of Reading proposes a solution which he refers to as the ‘human cyborg’. Warwick carried out a series of experiments on himself to expand his mental capacity beyond that of any human. In August 1998, Warwick underwent an operation to implant a silicon chip transponder in his forearm. This experiment allowed a computer to monitor him as he moved through the Department of Cybernetics at the University, using a signal emitted by the implanted chip. He could generally ‘operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger’.

Then in March 2002, in the second part of his project, a one hundred electrode array was implanted into the median nerve fibres of his left arm. He was able to control an electric wheelchair and an intelligent artificial hand, using the neural interface. The implant was also able to create an artificial sensation by stimulation. Warwick’s wife also took part in this experiment, with the aim of creating a sense of telepathy or empathy, which was also reported to be a success.

Both these experiments were deemed the ‘cyborg’ projects, thus emphasizing that human upgrading to such a status, or beyond, is not only possible, but also desirable. This is not only due to the excitement its inception might produce among the general public, but also the fear of an alternative, where failing to upgrade for humans would literally mean their doom. This takes us to our third scenario.

Third Scenario / Phase

This phase explores what science fiction writers have been warning us for decades; the ‘enslavement’ of the human race by the much more superior race of AI, not only in intelligence, but also in status. So it follows: we created them, and now we have to suffer the consequences. Those consequences could very well mean the end of humanity as we know it.

Professor Warwick has also taken pains to point to this possibility as a viable one, especially if humans are reluctant to upgrade to cyborg form. Scientists who disagree with this alternative either direct our attention to the other two more enhanced scenarios aforementioned, as more realistic alternatives, or discard the idea altogether, claiming that robots could never surpass us as we are ultimately their creators. This is a contested issue, which has for now at least served a purpose, if not in enabling us to reach a verdict about the fate of our world, then at least in providing us with some top quality entertainment.

What I think

To consider these as phases is indeed a feasible option, more so if we compare it to an already existing legacy – the evolution of humankind. Though we started out slightly ahead of the robots, in an already established second phase with equal status to other animals (Ardipithicus ramidus), we have rapidly made our way up and become ‘superior’ to all others (Homo Sapiens). Our ‘enslavement’ of these creatures is also exhibited, more favourably, as our keeping them as pets, or, more severely, as using them to suit our needs – like pulling our carts, or serving as our clothes. The problem, however with this comparison is, as you might have guessed, the inadequacy of the subjects being compared. In creating a being superior to humans, we should not assume they would follow suit.

Thus, not only is it problematic to view the third possibility as an inevitable phase, but even also as a working scenario. Presupposing humanity’s thirst for power to be intrinsically present in future AI machines means having to admit that we have plagued them with the same imperfections we ourselves possess, thus making any talk about the latter’s ‘superiority’ moot. Therefore hopefully, we can assume robots will remain in the first scenario for now, and possibly, at one point, in the more distant future move up to the second. However, even the latter itself seems somewhat idealistic at this stage, at least for someone who cannot think as far ahead – not in time, but rather, perspective- such as myself.

Maryam Ansari Shirazi