Artificial Intelligence: The Engine of Rapture?

When we think about artificial intelligence, one of the things we have to work with is the image portrayed by the media of how the consciousness may behave.  Generally the narrative follows a similar plot arch as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  The builder of the AI carefully crafts his machine and then, short of screaming “It’s alive!” watches in wonder as the entity begins acting autonomously – often with tremendous destructive effect.  But will the real development of AI be quite so simple?  Or will there be a bit more warning as the technology improves gradually?

One of the most well-known minds in artificial intelligence technology is Ray Kurzweil.  As computers have become more powerful at processing information, Kurzweil’s theories on the law of accelerating returns have been vindicated repeatedly.  Still, there are those in the field that suggest eventually the level of technology will plateau due to physical limitations on the hardware involved. 

The two sides have been in an intriguing discussion since before the turn of the millennium on the nature of artificial intelligence and how much foresight we will have into the tremendous impact it will have on our society.

Kurzweil tells of a world where artificial intelligence will exponentially begin to improve upon itself shortly after reaching a human level of intelligence.  This machine may then build another machine vastly superior to it and then so on, with a shortened span of time in between each machine built.  Where the graph goes from there is actually fairly unpredictable.  The exponential progression of technology, rather than the gradual, is one of the core ideas behind Kurzweil’s theories regarding technology.  They are based largely on a projection that has proven true for the past few decades called “Moore’s Law.”

The law suggests that an exponential growth is significantly different from a linear growth.  Rather than technology slowing down, the exponential growth of technology suggests we would actually see a rapid increase in the amount of advancement any given technology would offer.  In interviews and lectures, Kurzweil has pointed out how quickly technology has changed in a very real way in recent years.  At the turn of the millennium the use of search engines was limited compared to today, for example.  Other technologies have developed in the software field we would have once thought impossible.

Additionally, the use of social media has finally begun making social changes throughout the world, including the 2011 Egyptian riots.  We have seen in the past that these methods are both being utilized for the benefit of humanity and to manipulate the masses.  Of course the latter is less effective than more traditional forms of broadcasting as anyone can have a profound effect on the messages sent and received, depending on the survivability of an idea within the population.  And as technology changes exponentially, it’s possible that it will have proportional effects on societies as well.

Will we see the change coming?  How far is it away?  Many futurists have gone so far as to make the incredible claim that within 30 years, we may already see the technologies that will allow humans to live forever and bring sentient robotics to life.  It’s difficult to imagine, but this is based on a principle of the development that has proven to be frighteningly accurate in the past.