“Masters of intelligence”? – Visions of the Future (1)

In this, the first of three episodes, the BBC4 mini-series Visions of The Future examines how some of the scientific advances of the 20th and early-21st century may shape our future. Specifically, presenter Michio Kaku – Professor of physics and co-creator of string field theory – posits that we are on the brink of an “historic transition from the the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery” (00:01:20). He suggests that having “created artificial intelligence”, “unravelled the molecule of life” and “unlocked the secrets of matter” (all 00:01:03), science of the future will be concerned with more than mere observation of nature. It will be concerned with its mastery.





Thus, while the individual programmes each explore human mastery of one of three key areas (intelligence, DNA and matter), the series as a whole maintains a consistent theme: that though this mastery offers us “unparalleled freedom and opportunities” (00:57:47) it also presents us with “profound challenges and choices” (00:01:46). Kaku refers to “key social issues” that will be raised by future science and technology as topics we must “start to address today” (00:57:59). In the first episode Kaku introduces a number of developments stemming from “ubiquitous computing” (00:06:19), many of which intersect with relatively new areas of debate in bioethics. Ubiquitous computing – or ubiquitous technology – is the view that powerful computer microchips will soon be everywhere. They will be such a taken-for-granted feature of every product we use or buy, that they will become largely unnoticed and invisible. While obvious applications of this include “intelligent” cars and roads, health care monitoring technologies might also become commonplace. For example, Kaku suggests that “wearable computers” (00:07:40) in our clothes will monitor our health from the outside, and that by swallowing an aspirin-sized pill with “the power of a PC and a video camera” (00:08:45) the health of our internal organs might also be continuously assessed.

However, as interviewee Susan Greenfield notes, the biggest changes may come when “ubiquitous technology converges with … the internet” (00:09:11); changes which “raise some rather disturbing questions” (00:18:00). These focus on issues of identity (loss of identity, multiple identities), the preference of virtual social networks over ‘real’ social networks, and the impact upon family life. As Greenfield further comments, current experience with virtual reality worlds like Second Life and online gaming, suggests changes are already taking place in these areas.





For Kaku, however, it is in AI (artificial intelligence) that “an evolutionary leap that will profoundly challenge the human condition” (00:22:08) is now taking place. While he does describe the types of monitoring technologies noted above as machine intelligences, it is in the move towards intelligent machines that the future lies. It is these machines that raise a number of important questions with respect to the relatively new bioethical area of robot ethics, including:

  • To what extent can machines really be regarded as intelligent? How does this compare to human intelligence? Will humans always be able to tell the difference between a human and an intelligent machine?
  • What types of relationships might humans have with machines, and what principles – ethical or otherwise – might this be based upon?
  • To what extent could (or should) the human form be mechanically enhanced? At what if any point would a mechanically enhanced human cease to be human and become machine?

These questions also intersect with long-standing debates in philosophy and other areas of ethics, and have also been explored in popular science books and TV fiction (see the BioethicsBytes posts on Kevin Warwick’s I, Cyborg and the Cybermen episodes of BBC’s Doctor Who). For example, phenomenologists, epistemologists and AI experts have long debated whether machines will ever display “human level intelligence” (00:29:18) – including such social skills as “getting the joke” (00:37:52) – or whether they will be limited to merely mimicking some aspects of it. Kaku explores this question with commentators and AI researchers like Ray Kurzweil and Rosalind Picard, and focuses on emotion, which he suggests is “critical for higher intelligence” (00:36:58). Current work in ‘affective computing’ is directed towards developing robots with some such capacities, though as technology forecaster Paul Saffo notes, “you’ll know its not really intelligent” (00:35:51).




Similarly, questions around how we might relate to intelligent machines resonate with debates in animal ethics. Kaku notes the tendency to anthropomorphise robots that appear intelligent. He refers to his own Roomba robot, and says of the Japanese robot Asimo “I know Asimo is a machine, but I find myself relating to it as if it were a real person” (00:32:33). This introduces one of the key issues in the new area of robot ethics: at what point might machines come to be seen as ‘persons’ rather than mere ‘things’, and – if this does occur – should they be granted robot rights? (see for example Sawyer. 2007. “Robot Ethics”. Science Magazine, Vol. 318, pp. 1037). Extending this further, Visions of the Future considers what relationship we humans might have with machines whose intelligence greatly exceeded our own. This discussion is predicated on the possibility that intelligent machines might “outgrow human control” (00:40:15), and examines whether this would be based on harmony or conflict. Here the focus is not on how we will treat the machines of the future, but on how they might treat us.

However, as the final sections of this episode of Visions of the Future highlight, the distinction and opposition of the categories ‘human’ and ‘machine’ implied above may have limited relevance in the future. Alongside the drive to create intelligent machines, Kaku notes growing interest in the mechanical enhancement of human intelligence: “as machines become more like humans, humans may become more like machines” (00:43:36). Further, we are asked “precisely how many of our natural body parts could we replace with artificial ones before we begin to loose our sense of being human?” (00:55:27).





These concerns echo several of the dominant themes in posthumanism: the philosophical trend and cultural movement that both observes and advocates moving beyond a traditional – or classical – modern conception of the nature of humanity. In the form of transhumanism, this approach embraces the notion of ‘upgraded’ human, the cyborg, as the next – inevitable – evolutionary step. In may ways, Visions of the Future functions to outline, both the steps in the posthumanist argument, and it ultimate endpoint. It highlights how technologies currently used for therapeutic purposes could be used to enhance various human capacities (the examples used here are mood, memory and intelligence), however, that those who choose not to take part in this ‘revolution’ will find themselves severely disadvantaged. Paul Saffo notes “all revolutions have winners and losers, this revolution is no exception … the big losers are the people who say they don’t want to get involved. They are the ones who are going to discover that being a little bit out of touch will have some unpleasant consequences” (00:56:39).

Overall this futuristic first episode of the Visions of the Future series sets a tone of expectation – both of the future and the next two episodes. It is engaging and useful, both in its presentation of the science, and the questions it raises regarding the social and ethical implications of ‘the intelligence revolution’.

The first of three episodes of Visions of the Future was first broadcast on BBC4 on November 5th 2007 at 21:00 (TRILT identifier: 00741D95).

One Response to “Masters of intelligence”? – Visions of the Future (1)

  1. […] episode one of Visions of the Future (see BioethicsBytes post “Masters of intelligence”? – Visions of the Future (1)) Kaku introduced the use of small, but intelligent, machines in medicine as a form of […]

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