With each successive advance in technology, computers and robots take over more and more responsibilities from humans each day. Stephen Hawking, the U.K.’s – and perhaps the world’s – most renowned theoretical physicist, thinks that this is a bad thing, that artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race,” while other scientists disagree with his views. A balanced assessment begins with examining the impacts artificial intelligence has on society has a whole, and whether that spells disaster, advancement, or a little bit of both.
Definition of Artificial Intelligence
While Czechoslovakian playwright Karel Capuk is credited with first using the term ‘robot’ in his play “Rossum’s Universal Robot” for an artificial human, it was science fiction author Issac Asimov that gave robots not only artificial intelligence, but also sentience. In today’s technologically advanced world, artificial intelligence is not synonymous with sentience – self-awareness – it does not mean that Skynet from the “Terminator” suddenly becomes aware and eliminates humankind as a threat to the planet.
Artificial intelligence, as defined by computer scientists, means a simulated human-like intelligence where thinking robots and machines perform tasks that include language translation, visual perception and basic decision-making and problem-solving skills. The real threat of artificial intelligence to humans may be both social and economic.
Artificial Intelligence and Sentience
Assistant Professor Arend Hintze – of integrative biology and computer science and engineering at Michigan State University – defines four types of artificial intelligence in computers or robots as:
- Type I Reactive Machines: computers or robots that can only react to a given situation, such as those that play chess or games against a human competitor. These machines contain no ability to create memories or use past experiences to make current decisions.
- Type II Limited Memory Machines: These machines, such as self-driving cars, can use limited memory and past experiences to make decisions. But these memories are not saved for the long-term to allow the machine to learn from past experiences.
- Type III Theory of Mind Machines: represent the divide between machines built now and those built in the future. These machines will one day have the ability to “form representations about the world, but also about other agents or entities in the world. In psychology, this is called theory of mind – the understanding that people, creatures and objects in the world can have thoughts and emotions that affect their own behavior,” the professor says.
- Type IV Self-Awareness Machines: Machines that expand the theory of mind, are self-aware and understand the concept of self in relationship to others. Hintze explains it as the difference between “wanting something and knowing you want something.” Conscious entities are aware of the self and their inner states of being or feelings, and as such, can predict the emotions of others. We do not have any of these machines, computers or robots of this kind yet.
Negative Impacts of Artificial Intelligence
One of the real impacts humans face because of advancing technology is the loss of jobs and the economic displacement of workers. As thinking machines take over tasks once performed by humans, people will need to reinvent themselves and the work they do to support their families. As prices continue to drop for advanced technology, the result is that machines cost less than a human does to complete the same work.
Another factor is that when societies become too dependent on technology, humans begin to lose the skills that technology has replaced. Prior to pocket calculators, math problems were written out by hand. Students learned basic mathematical concepts that helped them solve complex problems. But now students use calculators to help them achieve their answers, and they are losing the ability to use their mathematic problem-solving skills. It doesn’t stop there. Medical science proves that muscles that don’t get enough exercise, break down and atrophy with time. The same happens to those skills and abilities no longer in use by humans because machines have taken over the heavy lifting.
Artificial Intelligence Benefits
Artificial intelligence can be both a blessing and a curse. Just in the last few decades, anyone can access knowledge at their fingertips, if they have internet access and basic search-engine navigational skills. For people who use computers in their jobs, it takes less time to perform such tasks as accounting, banking and paying bills, freeing up more time for the individual. Technology allows instant connections around the world, and instant access to breaking news.
The Best of Both Worlds
Computers and robots have made inroads into factories, soldiering, housekeeping, banking and more. Scientists project that in the future machines may be called on to become pharmacists, bartenders, babysitters, farmers and even surgeons – under human supervision. But robots won’t replace humans in a lot of jobs such as psychiatry and psychology, human resource managers, political and governmental jobs, dentists, teaching, and other jobs that include unpredictable expertise, managing others or jobs that require critical thinking and specific areas of expertise.
The ideal solution is for humans to work in tandem with robots so that humans become more efficient. In some of Amazon.com’s warehouses, for example, the company already employs a host of robots that move warehoused items from the shelf to the human employees who then scan them. By adding these robots, employee production has increased from scanning 100 items an hour to 300 items per hour. This innovation has also reduced the amount of walking these employees do by at least 20 miles per day.
If humans give up their critical thinking skills and rely too much on robotics and computers, allowing important mental muscles to atrophy, advancements in technology could represent a decline in the human race’s ability to survive, evolve and thrive. But technology that is thoughtfully managed by humans – and doesn’t replace social interactions with other people and nature – can be a benefit and a boon to humanity. With checks, balances and adequate controls, there is a place for artificial intelligence, as it is now known, in the human world.
- Wired: Jan. 25, 1921: Robots First Czech In
- Michigan Tech University: What is Artificial Intelligence
- The Conversation: Understanding the Four Types of AI, from Reactive Robots to Self-aware Beings
- Wired: When Robots Take All the Work What’ll Be Left for Us to Do?
- Brookings Institution: How Robots, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Will Affect Employment and Public Policy
- Market Watch: 9 Jobs Robots Already Do Better Than You
- Fortune: These Are the Jobs Least Likely to Go to Robots
About the Author
As a journalist and editor for several years, Laurie Brenner has covered many topics in her writings, but science is one of her first loves. Her stint as Manager of the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in California's gold country served to deepen her interest in science which she now fulfills by writing for online science websites. Brenner is also a published sci-fi author. She graduated from San Diego's Coleman College in 1972.