Status: Uncertain

For all the work taking place in the development of artificial intelligence (AI) there seems to be an air of pervasive pessimism over what it will mean for the future of the human race. As I’ve stated previously, you don’t have to think of the Terminator films or Blade Runner as documentaries to be wary of the dangers AI poses. It wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that fears of human kind being superseded by machines of our own creation probably first emerged about two minutes after we first dreamed up the notion of robots.

The optimistic view is that robots have been put upon this earth to make it a better place for us all. The more credible version is that they will evolve to become super-intelligent beings that will overthrow or render the human race that created them extinct.

To date, these fears have been brought to life in books or films, but it’s not just creative types that are starting to question the effect AI could have on our futures. AI experts around the world recently penned a letter recommending “expanded research aimed at ensuring that increasingly capable AI systems are robust and beneficial: our AI systems must do what we want them to do”.

Professor Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have also expressed their concern over the dangers posed by AI. Hawking wrote that “the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all”. As for Musk, he warned of the need to be “super careful with AI” arguing it was “potentially more dangerous than nukes”.

I can’t help but wonder if this fear is a symptom of something else: namely, a subconscious awareness that we have reached the limits of our evolutionary adaptation coupled with an acknowledgement that machines will be the vehicle for our future evolution.

We rule the world and everything in it to the point where there are few external biological pressures or threats spurring us to evolve further physically. But what about in terms of intelligence? This is where I think we can take a step back and examine a parallel but far more rapid evolution taking place at the machine level. We have already created machines that can help us to overcome or improve on our physical limitations and handle many manual and physical tasks better than we can. Now it looks as if we’re in the process of accelerating the evolution of our intelligence through the development of AI.

What does this have to do with social media? Well, here I start to wonder just how useful all that digitised social content in Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other platforms will be to providing clues and markers as to how we deal with each other socially and as an aid to the evolution of AI. Our interactions with social media platforms may not provide a complete roadmap to how we behave as human beings but they can deliver an awful lot of pointers to what makes us human. IBM’s Watson can already read 800 million pages per second but the sum of human knowledge consists of more than the written word, our music and our art. It consists of us. The more we engage with social media, the more insight we provide those platforms into the the essence of who we are. We know that’s true because companies like Facebook base their business model on it.  

At the moment, most of the focus on AI is on creating individual machines but at some point, the evolution of AI will take it to the stage that we, as humans, are physically and mentally incapable of attaining: telepathy. AI telepathy is already possible today through wireless technology and the internet. It is quite conceivable this could lead to a single, super intelligent entity connected across a multitude of robots or androids that will, to all intents and purposes, have reached the status of hive mind or collective consciousness that has been a popular concept in science fiction ever since Olaf Stapledon introduced it in his novel Last and First Men in 1930.

The IT industry likes to talk about the arrival of the digital era but it’s only focusing on a small part of what a digital world means. Yes, we can convert and replace physical media and interactions with digital versions but we may also end up replacing our physical selves with digital versions as well. Our intelligence could end up surviving as a strand in the DNA of AI as it mutates and evolves. The fact we appear to be embarking willingly on the digitalisation of our existence demonstrates the sheer intensity of the evolutionary drive within us to find some way to progress life further.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s a status update most of us are going to ‘like’.