Monday, May 21, 2012

The Rise of Robots

The year is 2035 and highly intelligent humanoid robots are swarming the streets, offices and homes slaving for their human masters in mundane chores like cooking, laundry and running petty errands freeing man to focus on weighty matters like science and arts.

Fitted and operated by a miniature central processing called a “positronic brain” and operated from a main server, these super-intelligent contraptions suddenly develops a conscious and rebels against their creators throwing the world into a bloody showdown between men and machine. It takes the heroic antics of a benign cop to stop the robotic revolution and put all of them to sleep by malfunctioning their electronic brains.

Of course this happened in the 2004 Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster i,Robot and the superhero was the renown African-American actor Will Smith. But futuristic computer scientists and enthusiasts have claimed that with the current trend where artificial intelligence (AI)- driven machines are rapidly spreading their optic tentacles to every facet of man hardware is bound to triumph over humanity in the not-too-distant future.

“Machines will rapidly overtake humans in their intellectual abilities and will soon be able to solve some of the most intractable problems of the 21st century,” Dr. Kurzweil said while addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2008. “The paradigm shift rate is now doubling every decade, so the next half century will see 32 times more technical progress than the last half century”.

He notes that AI will advance so rapidly in the next decade that it will be at par with human intelligence by 2020s after which it’s abilities will surpass the human brain. Dr. Kurzweil, a pioneer in numerous fields of computing like optical character recognition that gave rise to the CD technology, says this is evidenced by the fact that the computer chip has been doubling in power after every two years in the last half-century leading to acceleration of miniaturization of all chip-based technologies.

Although the current generation of computers is based on two-dimensional chips made from silicon, from which the famous technology hub Silicon Valley in San Francisco derives its name, development of three dimensional chips made from biological molecules that can be miniaturized further and easily than metal-based computer chips is at an advanced stage.

Many computer ‘futurologists’ believes this will be the final blow to the monopoly of humanity as the only intelligent entity roaming the known universe.

“Three-dimensional, molecular computing will provide the hardware for human-level ‘strong artificial intelligence by 2020s,” Dr. Kurzweil, who is one of the 18 computer wizards chosen by AAAS to identify technological challenges facing humanity told The Independent. “The more important software insights will be gained in part from the reverse engineering of the human brain, a process well underway. Already, two dozen regions of the human brain have been modeled and simulated”.

Despite the fact that the human brain is no match to computers when it comes to the speed and capacity of storage and retrieval of information its ability to associate different strands of information, insight, planning ahead and undertaking imaginative and creative tasks is beyond the powers of any machine ever created.

“Once non-biological intelligence matches the range and subtlety of human intelligence, it will necessarily soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge,” notes Dr. Kurzweil who authored the book The Age of Intelligent Machine.
But the key to turning these fantasies into reality, scientists says, lies in the ability to replicate some complex human cells called neurons that are responsible for transmitting information throughout the human body.

Blue Brain Project, a programme set up by Brain and Mind Institute of Switzerland in 2005 to study the brain’s architectural and functional principles, have claimed some progress on this end by simulating elements of a rat brain.

Although this was considered a major breakthrough since unlike other artificial simulations it involved the creation of a biologically realistic model of a neuron, the ultimate goal of the programme is to engineer a computer simulation of a fully functioning human brain from laboratory data.

“It is not impossible to build a human brain. We can do it in ten years,” Henry Makram, director of the Blue Brain Project, told a conference in Oxford in 2009. “If we build it correctly it should speak and have an intelligence and behave very much as a human does”.

Supporters of this school of thought points at a highly publicized event in May 1997 where an IBM-designed machine called Deep Blue made history by defeating the then reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Having beaten an earlier version of the same machine in 1996, the Russian Grandmaster immediately demanded a rematch accusing IBM of cheating. The latter refused and dismantled the “Silicon Beast”.

A documentary film made in 2003 called Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine claimed that Deep Blue’s heavily publicized victory was a ploy by IBM to boost its stock value.

Although anti-Deep Blue analysts noted the fact that one of the machine’s designers was chess grandmaster Joel Benjamin who ingrained his vast knowledge in the central processing unit, futuristic computer geeks declared this as the first step towards the fall of man from the intelligence pedestal given that chess is one of the highest measures of human thinking.

“The fact that the machine outwitted one of the best chess players that have ever lived is an empirical proof that machines, if well programmed, can and will outwit human beings in many areas previously not thought possible,” explains Dr. Tony Omwansa, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s School of Computing and informatics. “This confirms the hugely debated fact that AI driven machines will play a very big role in the future of humanity”.
Dr. Omwansa goes on to point out other facets of human life that were previously never thought possible like flying across oceans in planes many tones heavier than air, sending money to people hundreds of miles away by the touch of a button and interacting with ATMs to withdraw or deposit money are now considered “normal”.

“Google is currently testing a driverless car that operates on a robotized software whose ability to predict and prevent accidents is far much higher than that of any human driver,” explains the university don who recently penned a book entitled Money Real Quick: The Story of Mpesa explaining the monetary transfer system birthed in Kenya a few years ago. “Since these unmanned vehicles were put to test they have logged approximately 140,000 miles with only a single accident which occurred when a manned car rammed into one of them”.

The Google’s fleet of AI-driven automobiles comprises of six Toyota Priuses and one Audi TT. Their creators says that if robots take charge things will be much better since the intelligent machines react faster and more accurately to situations than their human counterparts since they have a 360-degree vision and are devoid of any emotions.

Ambitious predictions say these robo-cars might be cruising through western roads as early as 2020.
“Research on emotionally conscious artificial intelligence is at an advanced stage hence robots of the future will be in a position of not only carrying out instructions but their decisions will be swayed by artificial emotions, giving them an important impetus towards equaling humans,” Dr. Omwansa observes. “The possibility of this is underlined by truth machines which are able to read the human emotions much better than a human interrogator”.
This argument is supported by this year’s winner of the Association of Computing Machinery A.M Turin Award and AI pioneer Judea Pearl who says that future robots will acquire freewill and be able to generate independent jokes and other creative concepts like art and music.

The prospect of a robot-dominated future has been depicted in numerous movies and books which have further accelerated the interest of AI among the general population.

“I think they tickle the creativity and interest of young people in AI research. It’s good for public interest, they serve a purpose,” Judea Pearl told US News, an American newspaper, of robotic sci-fi movies. “For me I don’t have time to watch them. I have so many equations to work on”.

Although Dr. Omwansa notes that at the moment the human mind betters artificial intelligence because the latter cannot respond to unstructured problems like holding a random conversation, intensive research has been dedicated to solving this problem and future robots will probably have this component.

“Artificial neural network where the machines are ingrained with silicon neurons similar to those in the human brain have led to the creation of revolutionary computing gadgets,” the University of Nairobi lecturer says. “Already there is a gadget developed in Japan where people from the opposite ends of the earth can kiss and express other forms of emotional feelings by the touch of a button”.

Informed by this rapid technological progress Dr. Omwansa says Kenya, a country often referred to as the Silicon Savanna due to its ability to embrace technology, will be a totally different place in around 100 years time.
“Although I have no factual data to back this, my prediction is that almost or more than 50 percent of the current daily human functions will be taken over by artificially intelligent machines by around the year 2100,” he says. “By then the technology will be so advanced that these gadgets will be operated by a mere thought process since the neurons in the human brain will be technologically linked to silicon neurons that operates the robotic circuits”.

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