How close are we to a thinking machine? There are already designs produced by
simple artificial intelligence that we don’t fully understand. Some
electronic circuits designed by genetic algorithms, for example, work better
than those conceived by humans – and we aren’t always sure why because
they’re too complex.
Combine this software intelligence with robot bodies and you have a science
fiction film. But because every aspect of our lives is controlled by
computers, this malevolent super-intelligence wouldn’t need arms and legs to
make life unpleasant.
You can argue that we could do artificial intelligence experiments on
computers isolated from sensitive systems, but we don’t seem to be able to
keep human hackers in check so why assume we can outwit a super-intelligent
thinking machine? You can also argue that AI may prove to be friendly, but
if they treat us the way that we treat less intelligent creatures then we’re
in a world of trouble.
There were fears that the first atomic bomb tests could ignite the atmosphere,
burning everyone on Earth alive. Some believed that the Large Hadron
Collider would create a black hole when first switched on that would consume
the Earth. We got away with it, thanks only to the fact that both
suggestions were hysterical nonsense. But what’s to say that one day we
won’t attempt an experiment which has apocalyptic results?
A decade ago it seemed like distant sci-fi but we’re all familiar with 3D
printers now: you can buy them on Amazon. We’re also creating 3D printers
which can replicate by making parts for a second machine.
But imagine a machine capable of doing this which is not just microscopically
small, but nanoscopically small. So small that it can stack atoms together
to make molecules. This could lead to all sorts of advances in manufacturing
But what if we get it wrong? A single typo in the source code and instead of
removing cancerous lump in a patient these medi-bots could begin churning
out copies of themselves over and over until the patient is nothing but a
grey goo composed of billions of machines. Then the hospital, too, and the
city it’s in. Finally the whole planet. This is the ‘grey goo’ scenario.
If one machine made two machines over a period of 1,000 seconds, then they
each made two, and so on, in ten hours you’d have 68 billion. Prince Charles
famously warned the Royal Society to consider this risk in 2003 and was
mocked for it.
The well-respected nanotechnologist Chris Phoenix discredits the idea, saying
that ‘grey goo’ could not happen by accident but only as the “product of a
deliberate and difficult engineering process”. It’s lucky, then, that nobody
has ever carried out a difficult engineering project with the sole intention
of harming millions of people. Oh, wait…
By far the most likely doomsday scenario is also the least dramatic: our
materialism and lack of care for the environment continue to affect the
climate to the point where we cannot survive in it.