Are We Being Replaced?

Mars Rover

Technological progress is prevalent in society. Every year, newer models of cell phones, televisions, and computers are released. The reasoning behind the release of new machinery is that it is more efficient than the previous model and thus can greatly facilitate the activities it was designed for. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and the steel plow in 1837 greatly improved farming methods [1]. Prior to these inventions cotton was picked by hand and land was plowed by fragile wooden plows. As a result, the same amount of physical input can produce more units of clothing and harvest. These technological advances enhanced global living standards because it made the production of food and clothing much more efficient. Likewise, the advent of computers and the Internet has allowed information exchange at much faster rates. To further capitalize on the positive effects of technological progress, scientists are trying to develop technology with artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is the design of a system of independently thinking agents that are capable of interacting with their environment [2]. With artificially intelligent technology, many scientists hypothesize that the efficient nature of machines can then be applied to an extended range of activities, such as space exploration and crime patrol. Although artificial intelligence may greatly improve life, it also poses economic, social, and ethical challenges.

The exact threshold of when a program displays artificial intelligence is hard to define. However, using the human brain as a basis for artificial intelligence, all artificially intelligent programs should be able to display perception, analysis, and action [3]. The human brain perceives the surrounding environment through the interaction of the five senses and neurons [4]. Similarly, through the use of equipment such as cameras, motion sensors, thermometers, and microphones, programs can take in information about the environment. The analysis portion is the differentiation factor between computer programs and the human brain. Typical programs take in input and mechanically process them in a series of defined steps [5]. Programs treat all types of inputs alike and only deal with problems once they occur in the course of the execution. A program does not deviate from its coding, no matter how absurd following through with the lines of coding may be. For example, a program designed to print out the first ten multiples of a number the user inputs will take a non-numerical input and then produce an error when it tries to use that input in the subsequent lines of coding. It does not immediately recognize the problem before it acts on the input.

Asimo Robot

This structured response to the environment is different from human responses. Just like a basic computer program, the brain does process inputs from the environment. However, the human brain is not limited to reacting in the exact same way to all environmental cues, even if they are very similar. When other people are speaking to someone, the individual’s brain perceives the sounds and mentally processes it into meaningful thoughts. Based on the content of the message, the person speaks back in an appropriate manner. This method of handling sounds is broken when the sound is alarmingly loud, such as a gunshot, because it usually throws people into a panic and they stop trying to understand the sound as they run. Likewise, different individuals may react differently to the same exact words spoken to them. Racial comments may anger some but not affect others. The fact that the human brain can have unique reactions associated with the same input highlights the independent-thinking nature of the brain. Nothing is absolutely set in stone. Instead, the brain evolves over time and is able to learn from past encounters. Whereas earlier, the sound of thunder may have startled an individual, it can now have no effect on the same person. Current programs cannot rewrite themselves without human help.

A truly artificially intelligent program would be able to mimic the human brain and react uniquely to inputs. To endow current facial recognition programs with artificial intelligence, the program must be able to assess what the best way to identify an individual is before taking any action. If a person is wearing a mask, the program must realize that and not bother conducting facial scans. Instead, it should use voice recognition to identify the person. Furthermore, the program must be able to rewrite its lines of coding so that next time if a person is wearing a mask, it will go directly to voice recognition [6]. An artificially intelligent program need not be able to solve all problems but it needs to display trouble-shooting abilities.

Significant examples of artificial intelligence include video games and aeronautical equipment [7]. In video games, non-playable characters display artificial intelligence when they react to the movements of the human player. Even though there are certain lines of coding programmed into the game, the characters are still dynamic and react in a logical manner. Characters will actually seek cover when they are being shot at instead of blindly running towards gunfire. Some of them might try to flank the player or generally outmaneuver him in different patterns. As the game progresses, the non-playable characters become more familiar with the player’s strategy and thus react accordingly. Despite the unique strategies that each human player might develop throughout the course of the game, the artificially intelligent characters will adapt to each strategy.

NASA’s Mars Rover is capable of holding dialogues with scientists when issued a command. Even though a scientist could tell the Rover to execute an action, such as examining a rock, the Mars Rover does not need to immediately comply because it first assesses the environment and then determines whether or not it is safe to do so [8]. The Rover’s refusal to mindlessly obey the commands demonstrates its independent-thinking capabilities Its analytical abilities mirrors a human’s abilities because it takes into consideration factors in the environment, such as rough terrain, and does not only follow the scientist’s input command. After analysis, the Rover executes the action it deems best and informs the scientist. By ultimately making its own decisions, the Rover is displaying artificial intelligence.

There is a mixed reaction in the scientific community about the potential effects of artificial intelligence. Advocates of artificial intelligence cite the increased productivity and efficiency that can be obtained by replacing humans with machines in certain jobs [9]. A contemporary example of the increased efficiency includes American Express’s “Authorization Assistant” that uses a dynamic algorithm to flag unusual credit card activity for each cardholder [9]. By recognizing inconsistent purchases of an individual based on their previous history, the program is able to greatly reduce credit card fraud. It would take a human being a much longer time to keep track of all of these purchases and be able to differentiate between legitimate purchases and unusual ones. An extrapolation of the positive effects of this program seems to indicate that with further development of artificial intelligence, the rate of producing goods or rendering services will drastically increase because there will be a reduction in human error. Furthermore, due to the lack of physical limitations, such as sickness and the necessity for sleep, artificial intelligent agents would be more efficient workers than humans [10]. Robots could be operating manufacturing plants twenty-four hours a day and not need to stop. Also, the durability of artificially intelligent robots makes them ideal candidates for dangerous tasks, such as defusing bombs or exploring underwater regions, because their usage can save human lives [10].

Topio Robot

There are potential negative aspects to the benefits offered by artificial intelligence. Bill Joy, chief engineer at Sun Microsystems, believes that when artificially intelligent agents are created, it is inevitable that they will take control of society because of their efficiency [11]. Even though this view is extreme, it is not unreasonable to conclude that as technology becomes more efficient, the need for human workers will decline and unemployment rates will rise in certain sectors [9]. Historically, this trend is demonstrated in the manufacturing industry as the introduction of machinery led to the displacement of unskilled laborers [12]. Similarly, as the functions of robots increase and they become more prevalent, humanity runs the risk of becoming dependent upon them [6]. Excessive reliance on calculators in math courses has been linked with the decrease in mental math abilities in American students [13]. If excessive technological dependence does occur, then humanity will be at the mercy of the machines [6]. Joy referred to this situation as the “New Luddite Challenge” and said that the only way to combat this is to keep the usage of robots in check [6]. It is understandable to be dependent on technology to a certain degree, such as being dependent on a car in order to get to work, but to become helpless without technology would most likely be devastating. Before the implementation of artificially intelligent agents in certain sectors, it should be mandatory to notify employees early on so they have time to gain new skills in order to remain employed.

Along with this dependence and usage of artificially intelligent comes the issue about the status of robots [14]. If machines were to be equipped with artificial intelligence, then they can be considered as conscious beings [10]. Society would have to decide whether or not to allow these independently thinking entities to have the same rights as human beings or any rights at all. Moral rights, such as the right to life and the right not to be manipulated for another person’s gain, are granted to all independent consciousness beings [14]. These rights may negate the original intent for the development of artificial intelligence if the robot refused to carry out tasks that it was designed for. Financial and political rights for the robots may intimidate humans as the rapidly reproducing robots assume greater roles in society [6]. Most importantly, it would be necessary to ensure that the robots acted as moral agents and did not arbitrarily hurt human beings [14]. As the world gets closer to developing human-like artificial intelligence, scientists and politicians should decide how to treat these entities in order to prevent future problems.

The dual nature of the advancement of artificial intelligence makes it a controversial case. Currently scientists are far from perfecting artificial intelligence to the level of the human brain and thus the debate over implications is unresolved and speculative.


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Taskin Rahman is a sophomore economics major at Cornell University. He is interested in the interactions between business operations and computer programming. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.