I was born in the 20th century. They say the year 1900 rolled around unremarkable in many ways and unnoticed by a large swathe of humanity. In fact, in many parts of the world, the year 1900 was not even recognised as so, with humanity still yet to appreciate the benefits of a universally accepted Roman calendar. Remarkable events were to occur in the year 1900 that were to portend a monumental shift in the future of mankind. Several events conspired and led to the discovery of the gene, quantum, electron and our own unconscious all in one year. Even to an observer of science, it would be hard to predict what was to come. Over the course of the next hundred years, while mankind saw several global and local wars, both because of and despite, human creativity burst forth unstoppable. This led to penicillin, aviation, vacuum tubes, circuitry, computing, genetics, robotics and the Internet to name a few. We were well on our way to an era that is well captured in the German term das Gleitende which loosely means slipping and sliding; a term used to describe the world in which everything you believe to be true is changing rapidly.
It was therefore not out of place for Sir Isaac Asimov to go as far as to predict the world controlled and managed by computers. A world of Artificial Intelligence or AI. A post-human world? Multiple streams of thought debate different scenarios for our future. In one human will fuse with AI to become the Singularity. In another human will be wiped out and replaced by AI and in a third where humans and AI can peacefully co-exist in harmony. I am not a betting man and so will await my turn to find out which direction our future takes but regardless, it is self-evident that AI is here to stay.
Artificial Intelligence occurs when a machine can exhibit intelligence. An ideal situation for a computer to demonstrate intelligence is when the device can act as a flexible and rational agent to maximise an objective by taking its environment into account. Alan Turing first suggested the insight that machines can simulate human reasoning, widely accepted as the father of AI and is known as the Church-Turing thesis. Artificial Intelligence operates in an automated fashion or as Automated Intelligence when the machine can act independently of any human supervision also known as unsupervised intelligence. When the computer needs human intervention to make choices, it is called supervised intelligence. In its early days, AI was used to beat the World Champion at Chess and more recently at the game GO. However, this was more a demonstration of logical reasoning and computing power instead of true intelligence. True knowledge could probably be described as AI’s ability to make non-standard and even moral choices when confronted by a situation. For AI to be truly useful, it has to draw on multiple capacities including computing, handling enormous data sets also known as Big Data, Analysis and Predictions.
It is best to examine one such scenario where AI could be deployed to better understand its power. For many of us who live in urban cities in India, traffic is a nightmare. In the world of AI, there will be no traffic at all, just a seamless flow of transport vehicles going about their business. In such a world, every vehicle will be a computer, digitally connected to a central system that monitors its location. The vehicle will feed in its starting point, and end point and an algorithm will calculate the most efficient way to get there all things considered. To make an intelligence choice of efficiency, it will take into account how many other vehicles are travelling, weather, priorities such as an ambulance or fire truck, road networks (in case you are still physically tethered to the ground), obstructions if any and factor for speed and distance. It will then predict the perfect route and speed for the vehicle and then guide it from start to finish. Of course, all this will happen automatically, while you read the Dickens novel that you have meant to while sipping on your Starbucks latte or hey even being in Zazen as you catch up on your meditation. You will not notice it but there will be a whirlwind of activity behind the scenes for your world to be so picture perfect. The computer in your transport vehicle will need to continuously transmit its statistics in real time into a massive computing system that will account for your car and everything else around it. It will run real-time predictions to speed up or slow down your vehicle, change paths or even take a detour depending on the conditions out there all the time maintaining equidistance from everything else out on the road. Neither you nor your guidance system will feel any road rage since there won’t be any idiots on the road. There will be no Red or Green lights, in fact, there will not be any lights at all, just the passing of transport vehicles in pre-determined neighbourly intervals as they rush about to get to their destinations. You may regret the inability to roll down your window and wave as you may be travelling more than 500 miles an hour, a small price to pay for the peace of mind you will surely enjoy.
Several technologies will have to converge to make this happen. Satellites, Global Positioning, Big Data, Computing, Data Transmission, Analytics, Predictions, Internet of Things (IoT), Sensors, Maps, not to mention the infrastructure involved in storage, transmission, switching, securing and encrypting all this data. The system will have to create security protocols lest your neighbour happens to be the President of the United States going to the United Nations or if you are lucky, Brad Pitt. You may well wish to instruct your vehicle to avoid both the celebrities for fear that the master algorithm decides that in the event of a possible accident your life is worth less than Brad’s as it makes moral choices.
In case you think this is wishful thinking, remember something very similar happens each time you get on a flight to go somewhere. The capacity will just scale to include all vehicles and add the complexity of the presence of the cow on the road to the algorithm. No, I am just kidding, there won’t be any cows on the road. Cows will be geo-tagged and geo-fenced with sensors on them controlling where they go. Seriously!
It is in the nature of debates to remain unresolved until the truth is upon us. My bias is toward believing in the inevitability of technology making our lives easier. Therefore, in my school of thought, we will live in harmony with technology with rule-based algorithms that will have an inbuilt safety. I know Elon Musk disagrees and worries about the danger of runaway AI but for once, I hope he is not right. Welcome to happier tomorrows, super laced with AI!