The Robots Are Coming, the Robots Are Here

If 2014 was any indicator we are now living among the machines, and there’s no turning back. Should we be worried?

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Dec 24 2014, 2:00pm

Photo: Shutterstock​

It was a big year for the machines. Robots self ass​embled, swarm​ed, and qu​ietly ran and jumped like ninjas. They w​ent soft, prepa​red our espresso, help​ed us eat, and performed brain sur​gery without having to drill into any skulls. They continued to suck at art.

We also landed a robot on a fuc​king comet. And let's not forget the children; they​ love their robo pals, after all.

The robots are coming. It's something we've been wringing our hands over—The robo uprising is upon us!—for decades. But if this year was any indicator, robots are already here. They're getting smarter too, as artificial intelligence gets, well, more intelligent, to the point that some of the biggest names in science, including Stephen Hawking and cosmologist Max Tegmark, co-authored a bom​bshell op-ed that asked what can be done right now to ensure humankind reaps the benefits of AI, not vice versa.

Should we be worried? Should we be scared? Will robots take all our jobs next year? Could superintelligent AI really wipe out humanity if we're ​not r​eady for it? Has SkyNet gone live?

Here at Motherboard, we spent a lot of time thinking about rob​ots and A​I in 2014. (We've also been quietly amassing a documentary film, due out in January, on robots and AI. Stay tuned.) We laughed at ro​bots blowing it, facepalmed over that ro​botic moon replacement for people who don't like to go outside, marveled at all​ the ways we're programming our five senses into robots, made a movie about a rob​ot that could grow fresh food for astronauts, and teased out why 'Franke​nstein' robots could be the future of AI.

If there's one big takeaway from all this, it would have to be from Gregory Dudek, roboticist, director of McGill University's School of Computer Science and of the Canadian Field Robotics Network, and the founder of Independent Robotics, Inc., who we asked to break down the Te​rminator Genisys trailer.

Dudek told my colleague Jordan Pearson that he thinks robots will have a significant impact on our world, much like computers, cars, asphalt, and electricity all did. That robotic impact is going to be "enormous," he said, but that's not because robots, which will appear ever more humanlike as stronger art​ificial muscles are developed, will become evil and annihilate humans.

"I think it's going to be [enormous] just because everything we do changes," Dudek explained. "Some things get easier, some things will get harder—not many things—and society will change. That's a lot more scary, in some ways."

The one thing that likely won't change for the foreseeable future? Income disparity. And the robotics revolution could very well make the jobs outlook even more grim, with the rich and their robots set to make half the world's jo​b disappear. (Bellh​ops and journa​lists can rest easy, for now.) So, yes: Rob​ots are coming for your job, but only if you're poor.

Then again, many tech evangelists will tell you that technological advances have historically only spurred job growth. Who's going to service all those 'bots? For this and a slew of other future robo-driven scenarios, including self-driving vehicles, my colleague Jason Koebler makes a nice argument for why the U​S government needs a federal robotics commission.

It's getting harder and harder to list a lot of things that we're way better at than machines

Which brings us back to Hawking and Tegmark's call to grapple with the future of artificial intelligence and deep learning now, before it's maybe too late.

I recently had a chance to catch up with Tegmark, who told me that we're still quite far from a point at which machines are as intelligent, or more intelligent, than humans. "But it's really quite striking that it's getting harder and harder to list a lot of things that we're way better at than machines," Tegmark told me.

Should I be concerned about AI then? I asked.

"Whenever a new and powerful technology comes along, it can bring fantastic new benefits, and also new pitfalls to avoid," he said. "That's not in any way unique to artificial intelligence."

Photo: Shutterstock

But it wasn't just Hawking and Tegmark, whose op-ed detailed both the promise and potentially species-ending pitfalls of tomorrow's AI, that felt compelled to speak out this year about superintelligence in machines. The United Nations, in a first, similarly warned of the spec​ter of "killer robots." Elon Musk call​ed AI an "existential threat" to humanity.

Perhaps Musk was being a bit hyperbolic. The founder of one robot company, at least, thinks we need to "chill​" about AI. Besides, the Web's smartest search engine apparently is dumber than a six-yea​r-old.

One thing is for sure: Whether or not AI run amok will snuff out the human race, this year the robots finally came.​

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