When Machines Overtake Humans: Next Big Thing

It’s our human superpower to invent tools that amplify us. We’ve invented tools that amplify our muscles and allow us to lift things farther, faster, and higher. And now, thanks to AI, we are inventing machines that can amplify our minds. This opens up vast possibilities.

It would be terribly vain to assume that we humans are as smart as possible. Of course we are smart, but there are a lot of limitations. The human brain operates at biological speeds measured in hertz. Computers operate in the gigahertz – millions of times faster.

It would be terribly vain to assume that we humans are as smart as possible.

Human memory is limited by the size of our brain, which is limited by the size of the birth canal. We still have a long way to go to build machines that match all of our abilities, but where we have built computers in narrow domains, the machines already match human abilities and, in some cases, have far exceeded us. The best computer programs for playing chess are now much better than the best grandmasters – if Magnus Carlsen played the best chess program today, he would lose 100 to zero. Likewise, by way of example, we have built computer programs capable of interpreting x-rays more accurately, faster and more cheaply than any human doctor.

Toby Walsh with a Pepper robot, holding his book 2062: The World That AI Made (Black Inc Books). Credit: TU Berlin/Press/Christian Kielmann

We still have a long way to go to match the creativity, adaptability and flexibility of humans. But I imagine that at some point we will exceed all of these capabilities as well, and that point is not that far off. I interviewed 300 of my colleagues, other experts around the world working in the field. And the median answer they gave for when machines would equal humans in all their abilities was 2062.

We still have a long way to go to match the creativity, adaptability and flexibility of humans. But I imagine that at some point we will exceed all of these capabilities as well, and that point is not that far off.

Unfortunately, we are already seeing machines that are a little too persuasive. The machine learning algorithms at the heart of Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds are manipulating how we vote and likely changed the outcome of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s presidential election. We are discovering that humans are easily hacked, and artificial intelligence is the perfect tool to do so, at speed, scale and cost.

More and more, we are becoming aware of the idea that the digital space must be regulated and that we must be protected from some of its potential damage. I spend more and more time talking to politicians and members of civil society, trying to inform them that this is a really important conversation that we need to have, because these are technologies that will affect everyone.

Toby Walsh in front of a whiteboard with a robotic arm machine
The positive potential of AI is also immense. Credit: TU Berlin/Press/Christian Kielmann

It starts by trying to explain the opportunities of AI technology. If you go back in time even half a dozen years, most of people’s ideas were derived from Hollywood movies – back in the day everyone would post a picture of the Terminator and discuss some pretty fantastic ideas about robot takeover. But the reality tends to be a lot more mundane than Hollywood would have us believe, and the good thing is that those conversations have evolved and now tend to be a lot more nuanced about how we need to carefully regulate and police the use and the abuse of these technologies – about algorithmic bias, for example, or the difficulty of facial recognition becoming a ubiquitous technology.

Autonomous killing machines are certainly a threat, but they’re not humanoid robots like the Terminator. These are the drones we sadly see in the skies over Ukraine and elsewhere. Drones are increasingly autonomous, and the same facial recognition software that unlocks our smartphones is used by drones to potentially identify, track, and kill humans on the ground. And that brings us to a very troubling place. A colleague of mine rightly compares them to weapons of mass destruction.

Autonomous killing machines are certainly a threat, but they’re not humanoid robots like the Terminator.

The wonderful thing about computers is that if you can make them do something once, you can make them do it 10,000 times, or a million times – they can repeat things over and over again. beyond human patience. And that’s also true on the battlefield. If you can get a drone to kill one person, you can get 1000 drones to kill 1000. And that takes us to a dangerous place. They will be weapons of terror.


Read more: “The robot broke the child’s finger… that’s of course bad”


But the positive potential of AI is immense. We already have machines that can do the four Ds – the dirty, the dull, the difficult and the dangerous. But there are still a lot of things people do today that they shouldn’t have to do, whether it’s working in mines or in warehouses. We can get machines to do this work, and that will free up humans to focus on the finer things.

Technologies like artificial intelligence can help us live even better and work less.

If we look broadly at the arc of history, life has improved dramatically since the industrial revolution. In Australia, life expectancy has almost doubled. And, relatively speaking, we live like kings and queens today. We have machines that wash our clothes and wash our dishes, and microwave ovens that can deliver food quickly, and many luxuries that would have been unimaginable 200 years ago.


Read more: AI Art: Proof that artificial intelligence is creative or not?


Technologies like artificial intelligence can help us live even better and work less. We forget that the “weekend” was an invention of the industrial revolution: the workers of the North East of England demanded to share part of the spoils of the industrialization of work, to have Sunday free to go at church, and then it became Saturday afternoon off, then all of Saturday. But then we somehow stopped – we thought “enough, we only need two days off out of seven”.

There is nothing in the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun that says you can only have two days off every seven!

There is nothing in the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun that says you can only have two days off every seven! There are big experiments going on in Europe and elsewhere to test the four-day week. And these three-day weekend experiments have already revealed two interesting things. First of all, people are just as productive – they do as much work in four days as they do in five, so we can pay them that much. And second, and who would have imagined that, people are happier. People are spending more time with their families, spending more time on their hobbies, volunteering in their community, doing whatever brings them joy and satisfaction in life.

Maybe the machines will help us do that.

As told to Graem Sims for Cosmos Weekly.



James G. Williams