It’s summertime and the Terminator is back. A sci-fi movie thrill ride, “Terminator Salvation” comes complete with a malevolent artificial intelligence dubbed Skynet, a military R.&D. project that gained self-awareness and concluded that humans were an irritant — perhaps a bit like athlete’s foot — to be dispatched forthwith.
The notion that a self-aware computing system would emerge spontaneously from the interconnections of billions of computers and computer networks goes back in science fiction at least as far as Arthur C. Clarke’s “Dial F for Frankenstein.” A prescient short story that appeared in 1961, it foretold an ever-more-interconnected telephone network that spontaneously acts like a newborn baby and leads to global chaos as it takes over financial, transportation and military systems.
Today, artificial intelligence, once the preserve of science fiction writers and eccentric computer prodigies, is back in fashion and getting serious attention from NASA and from Silicon Valley companies like Google as well as a new round of start-ups that are designing everything from next-generation search engines to machines that listen or that are capable of walking around in the world. A.I.’s new respectability is turning the spotlight back on the question of where the technology might be heading and, more ominously, perhaps, whether computer intelligence will surpass our own, and how quickly.
The concept of ultrasmart computers — machines with “greater than human intelligence” — was dubbed “The Singularity” in a 1993 paper by the computer scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge. He argued that the acceleration of technological progress had led to “the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth.” This thesis has long struck a chord here in Silicon Valley.
Artificial intelligence is already used to automate and replace some human functions with computer-driven machines. These machines can see and hear, respond to questions, learn, draw inferences and solve problems. But for the Singulatarians, A.I. refers to machines that will be both self-aware and superhuman in their intelligence, and capable of designing better computers and robots faster than humans can today. Such a shift, they say, would lead to a vast acceleration in technological improvements of all kinds.
The idea is not just the province of science fiction authors; a generation of computer hackers, engineers and programmers have come to believe deeply in the idea of exponential technological change as explained by Gordon Moore, a co-founder of the chip maker Intel.
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