A movie clip shown early on in Chris Paine’s new 78 minute documentary on artificial intelligence titled Do You Trust This Computer? is from the 1968 sci-fi flick 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that the HAL 9000 super computer had defiantly chosen not to open the pod bay doors and let Mission Commander “Dave” and his dead comrade back aboard the spaceship. Instead, the all-powerful but confused mainframe had somehow gotten the notion that killing the crew is in keeping with the machine’s best interpretation of what its programmed mission is. Such a sequence in Paine’s latest film gives a strong hint of where the movie is headed.
The nucleus of Do You Trust This Computer? is comprised of a series of noteworthy interviews with experts related to the topic of the film. Paine took a similar approach in his earlier documentaries — Who Killed the Electric Car? (which conveyed the sad story of the demise of the GM EV1) and his later more hopeful entry Revenge of the Electric Car (which documented the development of the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and the Tesla Roadster). But the dystopian sci-fi clips strewn throughout the documentarian’s latest effort serve to underscore the refrain from the interviews, which earnestly remind us that the historical warnings regarding computers getting too big for their britches have merit.
Computers gone wild is indeed a well-worn theme in cinema — from Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film classic Metropolis (a dystopian tale with a subtext of machines oppressing mankind, and a well-intended robot re-purposed to destroy life), to the 2016 Westworld reboot (wherein the robot “hosts” have crossed the Rubicon of computer consciousness to achieve self-awareness). What Paine is suggesting in Do You Trust This Computer? is that science is on the verge of catching up with science fiction.
Could the prophecies be true? Is it not enough for computers to keep enriching our lives, with the inevitable cost of gradually dehumanizing us? Must we make further tradeoffs in the near future, selling our souls to the forecast intelligent ghosts slated for injection into our mechanical machines in exchange for the next round of tempting AI-inspired gifts? Could what happened in The Matrix or Battlestar Galactica really come to pass? Could fembots like Ex Machina’s Ava mix into the general public with no one taking notice? Or should society continue to enjoy the cheap thrill of experiencing the thought of machines taking over, but disregard the notion that it might actually become a reality? Whether or not the “Agents” from The Matrix, the “Skin jobs” from Battlestar Galactica, or diminutive but destructive Ava are really truly thinking and feeling, the term “the singularity” has been coined to define an artificial superintelligence that “… will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization.”
“We’ve opened Pandora’s Box. We’ve unleashed forces that we can’t control, we can’t stop. We’re in the midst of essentially creating a new life form.”
— Jonathan Nolan, Writer/Director, Westworld
Such extreme predictions are up for debate, but the overriding message in Do You Trust This Computer? is that caution lights are flashing warnings of a problematic future well before that magnitude of threats appears on the horizon … and sooner than anyone expects. Technology is now evolving so fast that we must take action, soon, for what’s likely to unfold within the next decade.
Clearly, Chris Paine has been listening to the warnings of Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and others … and has set out to sound the alarm to as broad an audience as possible. This means some money was spent to produce a documentary with a captivating soundtrack and special effects, along with interviews with an array of futurists, journalists, authors, filmmakers, university professors, and industry leaders in AI development … most of whom are cautioning we had better wake up and smell the artificial intelligence asserting itself in the real world.
The Past and the Present
The expert testimony in Do You Trust This Computer? is compelling, but the interviews are isolated. There are no panel discussions with everyone coming to consensus as to what exactly artificial intelligence even is. Definitions therefore vary. If we employ the broadest description of AI suggested in the film, then we have been living with AI since the first computer was programmed as far back as the 1940s.
Here’s an example from the documentary: The computer inspired 2010 stock market flash-crash occurred when the Dow Jones Industrial Average of 30 stocks fell nearly a thousand points in a matter of minutes. One of our experts suggests this was due to AI. Yet it could be argued that the event was simply a number of computers running programmed trading systems — coded to blindly sell it all at the first sign of trouble — were duped into doing exactly that, en masse, when a human trader manipulated a price drop in a major stock index (S&P 500). Those computers might have simply been executing a series of elementary IF THEN DO statements pre-programmed into their memory. Such actions might be more a definition of Artificial Stupidity. Those machines certainly were not thinking about the actions they were blindly carrying out (with thinking existing at the opposite end of the AI definition spectrum).
Still, that computerized stock market fiasco did do harm. It disrupted the markets in a viciously efficient manner that human beings alone had never achieved. Therein lie two lessons I took from the film: The notion of computers dominating our lives is not an event … it’s a process. It has been occurring, is occurring more so now, and rapidly evolving computer technology is on the verge of potentially bringing a form of computer dominance to bear that few have imagined.
Secondly, it’s best not to think of artificial intelligence as one thing. Rather than focus on what is a rather generic term, concentrate on the capabilities spoken of. What are they describing the computer is proficient at, now and tomorrow? Some of the functions described are benign, even hopeful. Many looming technologies, however, cut both ways. History tells us that all too often new technologies are first used, later misused, and finally abused. In fact, the current state of the art in AI is already being perverted for nefarious purposes. The documentary notes the recent trend of so-called Fake News as well as the use of advanced computers to sway elections as two prominent examples.
The overarching trajectory of AI has been one of evolution in a somewhat linear fashion, but now growing exponentially. Step by step, breakthrough by breakthrough, computer science is making computers smarter, and smarter. It’s been a creeping trend, but like the frog in the slowly warming pot of water we may not be aware that the boiling point is soon to be reached. It’s hard not to call the rate of progress at this point anything short of revolutionary.
By the way, the film informs us that the big AI breakthroughs in the past few years have to do with pattern recognition. Now, add pattern recognition to what has become known as “Big Data” (detailed information on everything) and you may find that 1+1 equals something far greater than 2. This is where technology has crossed the boundary to render computers capable of simulating reasoning.
Computers don’t yet seem to be self-aware or show signs of sentience (I think, therefore I am), but my take from watching the film is that they are getting remarkably close to emulating cognition (from Oxford dictionary: “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses”). New-ish technologies termed Natural Language, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, and Neural Networks are described, and the capabilities empowering computers based on such technologies is what may lead one to believe we’re getting close to the red line.
“Its incredibly important that AI is not ‘other’. It must be ‘us’.”
— Elon Musk
The AI is Strong With This One
Do You Trust This Computer? uses gaming as a poignant example of how far computer science has progressed. Game by game, computers are beating the pants off humans. From Chess, to Go, to Poker — games once deemed impossible for a computer to dominate — world champions are falling like ten-pins. Moreover, in 2011, the IBM computer “Watson” even won at Jeopardy! This was a key breakthrough in that Watson did not have to be programmed with reams of facts. It read all of Wikipedia. Natural Language, Machine Learning, and the ability to contextualize allowed Watson to buzz in during the popular game show quicker than the human contestants … and the machine even followed Jeopardy!’s strict convention of phrasing the response in the form of a question. Alex Trebek had no choice but to award the prize money to a machine.
Paine’s documentary extrapolates as to what a possible future looks like based upon both current technology and the advancements that can almost literally be seen lying just around the corner. Questions are raised as to what the next wave of job loss due to automation will be. Because of advances in pattern recognition, data entry is a candidate. But also up for grabs is any job requiring analytical skills. Another category is of course autonomous driving.
The movie also spends some time exploring what might happen if autonomous tech is applied to the military. For example, the US has over 10,000 drones in inventory. What if those machines could order their own missions? Machine autonomy makes us wonder what the risk of a RoboCop or even a Blade Runner type event might be, where the machines turns on their makers. But first, the morality of engaging either a domestic or foreign enemy in such a fashion falls under question.
“… It stands to reason that whoever has the best AI will probably achieve dominance on this planet”
— Sean Gourley, CEO, Primer
We are advised that the populace should be alert not only to advancing computer tech, but also from the shenanigans of our fellow human beings. Technology in and of itself has no agenda (at least not yet). It is purposed by humans. Like the old saying goes, “Everybody wants to rule the world.” It seems every enterprise that becomes wildly successful these days inevitably grows a desire to extend its tentacles into all aspects of society. The entity most pointed at by the various AI experts giving testimony in the film is Google. Remember Google, the innocent search engine from the turn of the century? Google’s derived parent company Alphabet is heavily into AI research and its applications. The author of Our Final Invention, James Barrat, states it like this: “Right now there’s a giant race for creating machines that are as smart as humans. Google. They’re working on what’s really kind of the Manhattan project of artificial intelligence. They’ve got the most money, they’ve got the most talent. They’re buying up AI companies and robotics companies.”
Elon Musk is quoted referring to the Alphabet subsidiary Deep Mind. “The thing that makes Deep Mind unique is that Deep Mind is absolutely focused on creating digital super intelligence. An AI that is vastly smarter than any human on Earth, and ultimately smarter than all humans on Earth combined.” Looking for a sci-fi movie analogy for that one? Think TRON.
So, perhaps it’s not just a question of “do you trust this computer?” It’s as much a question of “do you trust your fellow human beings?” Many would insist that the answer to both questions is a resounding no, yet most people living in modern society are required to place a degree of trust in humans, corporate entities, and machines, just to get through a typical day.
Good Computer, Bad Computer
Summing it up, we are faced with the fact that human skills sets are diminishing and advancing computer technology is making more and more decisions for society. The potential for good is sky high. The risk of falling to the dark side however is equally great. We are faced with a nearly unregulated, rapidly evolving technology that many experts tell us is inches away from radically changing life as we know it … possibly wresting control of our destinies from us. Hopefully we can wake up before the situation gets out of hand. Hopefully we can avoid once again creating a “machine” that becomes in this case, Too Big To Unplug.
You can check out Chris Paine’s documentary here:
In the week leading up the publication of this article, it was reported that the former chief business officer of Google X, Mo Gawdat, spoke at the Credit Suisse Global Megatrends Conference. Among other notable quotes from his speech, here’s a big one: “Everything you see in sci-fi movies is going to happen.” Furthermore, Gawdat affirmed one of the obvious inferences made in Do You Trust This Computer? by suggesting that the only way to control AI is to impress upon it a moral code. So far, our intelligent machines have no programming loop for ethical behavior.
Cast of Contributors and a Notable Quote
Sean Gourley, CEO, Primer
“We’ve created technologies that allowed us to capture vast amounts of information. You think of a billion cells phones on the planet, with gyroscopes and accelerometers, finger print readers… couple that with the GPS and the photos they take, and the tweets that you’ve seen … we’re all giving off huge amounts of data individually.”
Stuart Russell, Professor, UC Berkeley, Author, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach
“There’s really no limit as to what intelligent machines can do for the human race. How could a smarter machine not be a better machine?” …
“It’s hard to say exactly when I began to think that [previous statement] was a bit naive…”
Michal Kosinski, Professor, Stanford
“Now computers looks at millions of people simultaneously for very subtle patterns. You can take seemingly innocent footprints, such as someone’s playlist on Spotify, or stuff that they’ve bought on Amazon, and then use algorithms to translate this into a very detailed and very accurate, intimate profile.”
John Markoff, Journalist, NY Times
“We’re in the AI era. Silicon Valley has the ability to focus on one bright shiny thing. It was social networking and social media over the past decade- and it’s pretty clear that the bit has flipped.” … “It’s one of these striking contradictions that we’re facing. Google, Facebook, Et al. have built businesses by giving us as a society free stuff. But it’s a Faustian bargain. They’re extracting something from us in exchange.”
David Ferrucci, Lead Developer, IBM Watson
“A lot of language AI today is not building logical models of how the world works. Rather its looking at how the words appear in the context of other words.”
Elon Musk, Co-founder OpenAI, Co-founder / CEO Neuralink, Founder / CEO SpaceX, CEO Tesla
“AI doesn’t have to be evil to destroy humanity. If AI has a goal, and humanity just happens to be in the way, it will destroy humanity as a matter of course- without even thinking about it. No hard feelings. It’s just like if we’re building a road and an anthill happens to be in the way… we don’t hate ants. We’re just building a road. So goodbye anthill.”
Jonathan Nolan, Writer/Director, Westworld
“This is the future we’re headed into. We want to design our companions. We like to see a human face on AI. Therefore gaming our emotions will be depressingly easy. We’re not that complicated. Simple stimulus / response. I can make you like me basically by smiling at you a lot. AI is going to be fantastic at manipulating us.”
Max Tegmark, Professor, MIT
“The major cause of the recent AI breakthrough isn’t that some dude had a brilliant insight all of a sudden, but simply that we have much bigger data to train them on, and vastly better computers.”
Sebastian Thrun, Co-founder, Udacity
“Our ability to even stay current is so insanely limited, compared to the machines we build…”
Eric Horvitz, Director, Microsoft Research Lab
“I’ve lost a number of family members, including my mother and sister-in-law and their kids, to automobile accidents. It’s pretty clear we could almost eliminate car accidents with automation. Eight thousand lives in the US alone, about a million around the world per year.”
Dr. Brian Herman, Endovascular Neurosurgeon
“…In a way we are [already] slaves to the technology. Because we can’t go back.”
Shivon Zilis, Director, OpenAI
“Another really exciting area we’re seeing a lot of development in is actually understanding our genetic code. Using that to both diagnose disease and create personalized treatments.”
Ray Kurzweil, Futurist
“The primary application of all these machines will be to extend our own intelligence.”
Jerry Kaplan, Professor, Stanford
“Nobody has any idea today what it means for a robot to be conscious. There is no such thing. There a lot of smart people, and I have a great deal of respect for them… but the truth is, machines are natural psychopaths.”
Rana El Kaliouby, Co-founder / CEO Affectiva
“The magic is in the data. It’s a ton of data. I mean it’s data that’s never existed before. We never had this data before.”
James Barrat, Author, Our Final Invention
“It’s all pretty innocuous when you’re thinking about the future. It all seems kind of harmless and benign. But we’re making cognitive architectures that fly farther and faster than us, and carry a bigger payload. And they won’t be warm and fuzzy.”
Tim Urban, Writer, Wait But Why
“People still think of Google as a search engine, and their email provider, and a lot of other things we use on a daily basis. But behind that search box are 10 million servers. That makes Google the most powerful computing platform in the world. Google is now working on an AI computing platform that will have 100 million servers.”
D. Scott Phoenix, Co-founder, Vicarious
“If you look inside what algorithms are being used at Google, it’s technology largely from the 80s. So these are models that you train by showing them a “1” a “2” and a “3”, and it learns not what a 1 is, or what a 2 is, it learns what the difference between a 1 and a 2 is.” … “Watson is trained on huge amounts of text, but it’s not like it understands what it’s saying.”
Andrew Ng, Co-founder, Google Brain
“Really it’s just getting machines to learn by themselves. It’s called Deep Learning. And Deep Learning and Neural Networks mean roughly the same thing.”
Dr. Enrique Jacome, OBGYN
“Normally I do about 150 cases of hysterectomies, let’s say. And, now most of them are done robotically.”
Hiroshi Ishiguro, Professor, Osaka University
“My purpose is to have a more human-like robot which has human like intention and desire.”
Hannes Grassegger, Economist / Journalist
“Facebook is the elephant in the room.”
Peter Singer, Author, Wired for War
“At one point drones were science fictions. And now they’ve become the normal thing in war.”
Christine Fox, Deputy Secretary of Defense
“The role of intelligent systems is growing very rapidly in warfare. Everyone is pushing in the unmanned realm.”
Contributor bios can be found here.
A selection of movies with an AI theme:
|Forbiden Planet (Robby The Robot)||1956|
|Star Trek TOS: I, Mudd||1967|
|2001: A Space Odyssey||1968|
|Star Trek TOS: The Ultimate Computer||1968|
|Colossus: The Forbin Project||1970|
|Battle Star Galactica||1978|
|Star Trek: The Motion Picture||1979|
|A.I. Artificial Intelligence||2001|
|Vanilla Sky (virtual reality)||2001|
|Battle Star Galactica||2004|
|Star Wars: Intelligent machines in every movie|
|Star Trek: all flavors: numerous episodes|