The New Frontier
You wake up to your apartment and the news greets you from your bedside table with its neon eyes. Behind the chirpy interface, its synapses of ones and zeroes have handpicked stories you’d likely read based on your digital footprint.
In the kitchen, the smell of bacon welcomes you: your favorite breakfast, ready. Sunny-side-up eggs and bacon fried to perfection just as you like them every time, something that your computer learned three mornings before while observing you.
Beside a steaming pot of coffee, your laptop has already set up your meetings and your work day. You have a long day ahead, but your computer is already two steps ahead: annotating documents, setting up meetings, preparing your presentation.
This might be the future of artificial intelligence.
They are [not] coming
Even now, artificially intelligent machines and systems work to make our lives easier. They answer emails for us, write the news, pick out where to eat for next week’s dinner date, know which friend to tag for that beach photo, and guide our cars through traffic.
While there have been advancements in artificially intelligent machines, especially with recent breakthroughs in machine learning that has allowed them to become smarter, it will still be a long time before they take over us or our jobs. You can still rely on your barista to misspell your name after a third time of saying it aloud, and it will be a while before you see robots performing in theater.
The thought of the future of artificial intelligence is often welcomed by both hopeful anticipation or a bit of concern. Most of this misplaced anxiety and alarm about machines taking over our lives have been the result of sensationalized stories about robots taking over our jobs — from putting journalism in crisis to replacing charming shopkeepers with robots that promise to be as accommodating, aided by systems that can express or recognize emotion. Advancements like these often read like they spell our doom, a future where human labor has become entirely obsolete.
While robots and artificial intelligence has helped us become more efficient, they are still far from taking over the workforce. They won’t be mounting a rebellion against their makers and becoming our overlords — a dim depiction that must have hounded some of us after reading every breakthrough in artificial intelligence and robotics, fueled by hype and pop culture.
We are still a long way off from the future of living with robots among us but we sure have a courted and wooed this utopian dream in literature and entertainment.
Science fiction romanticizes artificial intelligence and paints a future of humanoid robots living among us — machines engineered to perfection beyond human capacity.
In HBO’s Westworld, humans with a knack for adventure and money to burn have built an entire theme park of life-like robots, offering an experience as immersive as real life itself. These robots, or “hosts,” have pre-programmed narratives that they stick to in a loop, waiting for guests to interact with them. The guests can do whatever they want with the hosts — shoot them, tie them up to trees to bleed, or just take them to brothels for pleasure. Westworld gives these guests the chance to free themselves and seek pleasures they could not get in the real world.
It is a future where robots have reached a level of complexity that makes them indistinguishable from real people. They have achieved the grace and wit our advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence could never match today. It is a dream of robotics and AI perfected, man and machine now equals.
Apart from laying bare man’s darkest desires, shows like Westworld offer an interesting and compelling argument as to what artificial intelligence could and couldn’t be in the future. It also presents a rather alarming future of the ethical implications of having artificially intelligent entities in our society who function, behave, and look human.
Robots in our midst
We still have a long way to go until we see robots living in our society. Although there have been breakthroughs in creating smarter AI, what we have now is still far from what we see in Westworld.
Recent advancements such as Google Duplex is a step closer to robots having human-like attributes and one of the many endeavours in creating artificial intelligence that can mimic a fundamental aspect of life — speech. It can successfully book an appointment and get reservations without the receptionist noticing that it was a computer. It has successfully mimicked the nuances of human speech, throwing in “uh-huhs” and “uhs” to make it sound authentic. Google has reassured the public, however, that its AI will identify itself as a robot and its intelligence is only limited to the confines of certain conversation setups. Conversations about philosophy or art is still far from reach, apparently.
We also still haven’t crossed the so-called uncanny valley in creating robots that look and behave like humans. We can build intricate automatons that look like us in every way but never move the way we do. They snap their head around sharply, with blank, unblinking stares, and may or may not go mad and talk about destroying humanity. These robots simply do not have the grace and fluidity only 3 billion years of evolution could engineer. It’ll be a little while before we can see a fully-choreographed performance of android ballerinas who could do pirouettes for days on end without breaks (this will soon be a labor issue but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there).
Unless we learn to engineer organic machines with sinews as strong and pliable as ours , robots will remain limited by their clunky, mechanical, dexterity. And there’s also the problem of power efficiency. The human brain consumes a meager 20 watts while a robot that has a processor with as much power as the brain would require 10 megawatts, the power a small hydroelectric power plant produces. Westworld seems to have accomplished this by interfacing organic with machine, the machine as intertwined with the fibers of its organic shell.
The storylines and the pre-programmed responses of hosts to interactions in Westworld are reminiscent of NPCs in a game, triggered by players through certain cues, offering up adventures and missions for you to pursue. These systems and narratives can easily be implemented within the controlled environment of a game but can be incredibly difficult and tricky to do in real life — a logistics nightmare waiting to happen.
The intricacies of human emotion, the little details of body language, the different desires that drive humans, or the little cultural and racial differences that make us diverse (e.g. facial recognition still has a diversity problem) are still uncharted territory for robots.
The hosts of Westworld seem to do this with ease, picking up on guests’ little quirks and habits, sniffing out their desires and manipulating them into their narratives. To perfect a place like Westworld is a daunting task. We still have a lot to improve on-and as quickly as possible-if we aim to create a place like it in the foreseeable future.
A long way to go
While we are still far from our gleaming utopia of a fully efficient society of humans and machines, artificial intelligence has already made our lives easier. Manufacturing, energy, education, entertainment, health, science — these fields, among others, have benefited from artificial intelligence and its recent breakthroughs.
Sure, artificial intelligence still has a lot to cover from creating inspired art of its own to understanding the complexities of dance or theater, but the breakthroughs we have had and the dialogue and discussion that shows like Westworld has provided about the ethics, morals, and possibilities of artificial intelligence add up to make us better suited in creating the machines of the future.