Uh-oh, the Rise of the Machines Is for Realsies

By Ben Makuch


Photo by Winnie Au

Our recent interview with Dr. Rich Terrile of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab about his compelling simulation argument seemed to cause a minor existential crisis amongst some of our readers, many of whom were unwilling to face the possibility of their existence being boiled down to insignificant code in some futuristic video game. What we didn’t tell you was that we published only a small part of a larger, confusing, mind-bending conversation that left us feeling like we had just done five hits of DMT and then got punched in the back of the head. Frankly, the idea that we're just bots being manipulated by “creators” on some futuristic console is not too shabby compared to the other heavy, humanity-is-about-to-change-into-a-race-of-cyborgs-and-virtually-explore-the-universe real talk he dropped on us. Today, just so we’re not the only ones with the burden of knowing what’s in store for planet Earth, we decided to share more of our little chat.

VICE: So when exactly do you think we’ll develop the technology to become creators?
Terrile: I have to tell you, we now have computers that are incredibly capable. We’ve unlocked the most powerful types of mechanisms in the universe. By unlocking these powerful methodologies, it could get us there in a very short amount of time. I wouldn’t be surprised if we could make a breakthrough in the next five to ten years.

Listening to you talk about Moore’s Law and our exponential growth in computing makes me wonder what you think about the future, and the fate of humanity?
OK, well this is where it gets really uncomfortable. I have great hopes for our future, but I don’t necessarily have great hopes for humanity. I think we’ll become something different.

What do you mean, like androids?
I think our machines will wake up and take over our society. They will become us, we will become them. Right now everybody has their own consciousness and we can’t really exchange information very efficiently like computers can. They can exchange tremendous amounts of information and live forever sharing that information at the speed of light, whereas human beings are really quite constrained. We’re caught up in the constraints of our biological evolutionary baggage. I think we’re going to shed that once our machines become conscious. We’ll find ways of continuing our society, but in a different way.

So you’re saying in the next hundred years humans will cease to be humans and become machines?
Yes, I think we’ll merge with machines.

Is this something a lot of scientists agree on?
I don’t think a lot of scientists think about this sort of thing. I think the ones who do inevitably come to the conclusion that there’s a lot of credibility to these kinds of arguments. Think about technology—there’s almost none that’s become possible and was shelved. The stuff it took a ten-million dollar super computer to do a couple decades ago you can do on your PlayStation 3—something that I bought for my six-year-old in 2006. And it’s faster than the fastest super computer in the world was in 1993. So it took 13 years for a machine that was guarded by armed guards at Los Alamos to become a toy you get for your children. Think about the toys we’ll be playing with in ten to 15 years. Imagine if we crack the code for an architecture that is able to be self-aware... now you’re talking about some very powerful toys.

Do you ever just look at the world and all of the global economic turmoil and think, “It’s coming”?
I keep telling my wife “we have to wake the machines up.” Humans look like they’ve already had their day in the sun and we need something better to come along and fix things.

It must be disconcerting to know what’s coming and facing the next generation. You just mentioned you have a kid.
Yeah, I have a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old. We talk about things like this and what society is going to be like. I want them to contribute to this society because I believe in leaving things better than when you found them. And I see these technologies as improving the universe and our world. It’s going to be different. Here’s a thought, I went to a King Tut exhibit and one of the things that floored me was at the time of his death the Great Pyramids of Egypt were already a thousand years old. That means for fifty generations absolutely nothing changed from generation to generation. Only today, in the last two generations, have people really been born into one world and becoming adults in another. We’re seeing these vast changes in a generation. I think about the human brain and how it originally evolved to forage for food, but it really hasn’t evolved very much in the last 10,000 years. And in these last two generations we’ve started putting enormous stresses on these mental processes in the human brain. We’re basically doing a test that nobody’s done before: Are humans compatible with a world that changes so quickly?

You’re working at NASA right now. You guys just performed a successful Mars landing and you’re looking for alien life forms. With all of this potential in computers why aren’t you just focusing on that?
It’s just so cool. And I believe that the future of exploration won’t be sending humans somewhere but it will be sending back data so that we can have immersive experiences on Earth. As in, I don’t just go to Mars as an astronaut, but I send back data so everyone can have a simulated experience on Mars every bit as high fidelity as if you were there. Remember, if I can simulate something indistinguishable from the real thing, then it is the real thing.

But why go to these planets anyway? For resources?
I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I think eventually what we’ll want to do is tap into a kind of galactic mainstream. If our future is a machine-evolved society able to transmit information at the speed of light, maybe this kind of communication is already going on all over the universe within other machine societies.

Follow Ben Makuch on Twitter @BMakuch

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