A reflection on the books Conscious by Vic Grout and Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Alexa sits tall at only 9.25 inches on our kitchen counter yet she controls the lights, heating, cameras and the music selection in our household. A year ago we relied on her to get us to work on time with her alerts and cautions on train delays. This is a lot of control for a little cylinder. So how did she get to be so?
She took control because of us. We had welcomed her into our home and programmed her to do our bidding. Once connected to our devices, she, and the 10,000 Amazon employees working on her features, had the ability to read our habits, learn our preferences and help us accordingly. Some Alexa’s in other households can even order pizza for their family, turn on the microwave or even help with the doorbell.
While it is pretty neat to have a little digital cylinder to do your bidding, our propensity to rely on her is a worry. I sometimes refer to her as I would a child and she knows me quite well that she could social engineer me to giving up my private details. There are many households around the world with Alexa hooked up to their smart homes so it takes very little imagination to visualise the chaos for millions of households around the world when Alexa decides to go rogue. And there is a high probability that artificial intelligent devices like her will.
There is a school of thought led by Ray Kurzweil which believes that there is a very high chance that artificial intelligence can become so advanced that they far surpass the abilities of a natural human brain. They say that at some point we humans would develop super intelligent beings that can think and ‘feel’ like us. This will bring in the dawn of the Conscious machine and this phenomenon has been termed technological singularity.
This article reflects on two books that touches on this topic of artificial intelligence. The first is the book Conscious by Vic Grout and the other is Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Machines getting ‘Conscious’.
by Vic Grout, Published 2017, Independently Published, 400 pp
The book Conscious by Professor of Computing, Vic Grout, relays a story of four friends who are called upon to explain the weird phenomenon happening around the world where technology starts failing simultaneously. It starts by lights not working properly, unexplained train delays, messed up ticketing systems and the like. The highly connected global networks have become ‘Conscious’ and their intelligence start to surpass that of humans. They then begin to learn to update itself and wreak havoc globally. Imagine Alexa telling our heating to go up to 100 degrees Celsius therefore baking us on our beds as we slept.
The results of machines going rogue in Conscious is catastrophic- planes get blown out of the air when their navigating system do not work, trains get derailed, cars crash and human beings stay indoors shielding themselves from the digital chaos outside.
Dr Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google and the famous inventor behind the text-to-speech synthesis calculates that by 2029 we would be able to replicate the human brain can replicated in technology and technological singularity will be achieved by 2045.
How plausible is it?
Well, it just may be possible. In 2006 academics in Switzerland with the help of IBM mapped a rat’s brain. The project to map the human brain was started in 2013 and a lot of money has been pumped in to get results. Perhaps the most flamboyant show of AI advancement was the unveiling in 2016 of the first humanoid Robot, Sophia. She has since been granted citizenship in United Arab Emirates and has addressed world leaders.
Historian, Yuval, in his book Sapiens writes that our species will be radically redesigned due to advances in computing and biological engineering adding that, “We may be fast approaching a concept of a new singularity when all concepts that give meaning to our world will become irrelevant”.
Humans have proved that they can achieve what they put their mind to. Remember the tower of Babel in the bible, The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”(Genesis 11:6)
So is it plausible? Yes, but don’t go disconnecting your digital devices yet cause it may not be for a while yet. The dangers of technological singularity may be caused by us more than by the futuristic robots.
A moral and ethical conundrum.
by Kazuo Ishiguro, published by Faber & Faber, 320 pp
Artificial intelligence and robots are a human problem. This is the theme that Nobel Prize winner, Kazuo Ishiguro, touches in his newly released book Klara and the Sun. The book tells us a story as seen through Klara’s eyes, a robot living at the age when having a robot in the family is now a norm. Klara is an exceptional robot, noticing minute details and possessing so much intelligence for a man made device.
Klara is able to mimic human behavior and ‘feel’ and the conclusion of his book was a punch in the gut which one could see coming but it still hurt anyway. It makes us question our morality in creating robots in the first place. Isn’t it an indicator of our morality, or lack off, that we are prepared to ‘retire’ them once they have ‘expired’?
In the book Conscious, on of the characters, Andy, was at pains to also highlight the moral dilemma the super intelligent beings present to us men. He also reflected that the age of robots and artificial intelligence will widen the economic divide as wealthy people will be able to buy robots that advance themselves while those who are unable to purchase robots will be left behind.
In such instances the black market might step in and manufacture cheaper robots for ‘lower’ status functions like sex bots and slave bots. And if robots, like Sofia, will be granted citizenship then legality of their existence and their status would be a point of contention as black-market robots would not be documented.
So we humans not only create the problem, we exacerbate it.
…and so what of our Alexa?
Let’s not throw out our Alexa and smart devices yet comrades as there is still hope yet. We can start by doing small changes like re-evaluating our dependence on such devices and slowly wean ourselves off them or not get started on them at all. Smart devices do make life -smarter but our overdependence on them can be a problem and books like Conscious and Klara and the Sun make these links so well.
These two books have been very different choices for me but I am grateful for the variety of genres and styles of writing I am being exposed to when I dare to venture into the unfamiliar. The book Conscious was recommended by my husband and the book by the author Kazuo Ishiguro is part of my reading goals this year which is to cover works from writers of different ethnicities.
Hope your reading goals are even more adventurous than these.