Mary Kenny: Our future will be increasingly organised by artificial intelligence. Should we fear rule by robots?
Who knows what a new year will bring? Who knows what the future will bring? No one can foretell because nothing turns out quite as predicted.
But there are many descriptions of how the immediate future is developing.
Robots, so often featured in science fiction, are with us right now, and will play an ever bigger role in our lives.
'Artificial Intelligence' (AI) may soon take over from human doctors. AI doctors, says Yuval Noah Harari in his global best-seller, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, might well be superior to human medics. "AI doctors could provide far better and cheaper healthcare for billions of people, particularly those who at present have no healthcare at all."
Learning algorithms and 'biometric sensors' could help a poor villager in an underdeveloped country to better healthcare via a smartphone than anything on offer to the richest today. Even if biometric sensors have a sinister side: the technology involves finger, face, eye and voice recognition. Artificial intelligence can register you - and even monitor you - by your anatomical profile.
We may get good healthcare with AI doctors, but the system will also have our DNA and the Big Data algorithms that track our activities. Say the biometric sensor detects cancer cells in your lungs? Early diagnosis is welcome. But AI could then start invigilating behaviour or even discriminating against someone with a health problem for insurance purposes.
Driving? More than 90% of accidents are caused by human error: a car powered by a robot will never drink and drive or take reckless chances with speed. For safety's sake, choose the robot!
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AI will eventually do most things better than humans. AI will produce music as inspiring as Mozart's. Robots are already thinking creatively in skills such as chess. AI can make better decisions than humans: it can also factor in the emotional element. Software is being developed which will know how to prompt laughter, sadness, sympathy, or hostility in our brains. Algorithms are being programmed to make 'ethical decisions'.
We may soon be equipped with a 'biometric bracelet' that measures every content of our lives. And you can bet your bottom bitcoin that someone, somewhere will seize control of this data and use it for their own nefarious purposes. Harari says: "He who owns the data owns the future."
Will rule by AI create a more equal society? If doctors are as redundant as dockers, we're all at the same level. Ah no. AI will probably prompt a less equal society because those who have ownership of the data could create their own 'upper caste' - to gain advantage over a 'lower caste' proletariat.
With the assistance of ever-expanding DNA information the new upper caste could procreate extra-gifted children through neo-eugenics.
The womb transplant that recently occurred in Brazil, and the altering of DNA sequencing in unborn babies carried out in China, are giant steps in human reproduction. But if infants can be made healthier, and selected for brains, talent and perhaps athletic prowess, they will be. Too bad for those who, via the old rules about human randomness, are not so brainy, talented or able-bodied!
That's one picture of the future - life ever more controlled by AI and bio-engineering. We all become tiny chips in the universal computer in the skies. Yet, who knows? Dramatic climate change or a sudden asteroid could alter everything. And judging by the past - often an insightful guide - there is usually a counter-movement against the onward march of the artificial.
When artificial fibres such as nylon and polyester were invented, they were hailed as a great breakthrough for convenience and wearability. They were, to a degree. Yet, rather than rendering previous materials obsolete, cotton, linen, tweed and woollens gained more status for being 'real'.
Nylon sheets were first seen as a boon for the householder - easy to dry, no ironing. But nothing is more desirable now than real 400-thread sheets made of the purest Egyptian cotton.
The artificial often makes the 'real' more valued.
Instant frozen meals and fast food were said to liberate women from sweating over a hot stove. Just pop it in the microwave, and enjoy! Convenience foods swept the market but 'real' food attained higher status by contrast. The word 'organic' has far more appeal than the word 'artificial'. TV celebrity cooks became the new priests and priestesses of a cuisine whose greatest boast is sweating over a hot stove.
Even as robots and AI take over in so many of the services we receive online or over the mobile phone, the sound of a human voice can become hugely valuable. I pay several utility bills by phone, following the robot's instructions to key in the appropriate numbers: but when there is a problem, it's so welcoming to be connected with a human being who is helpful and sympathetic.
It's conceivable that the spread of AI and the robotisation of everything will make us appreciate real people more. Simply because we're not robots.