2015 : WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK?

Director, External Affairs, Science Museum Group; Coauthor, Supercooperators; Frontiers of Complexity
Between Regular-I And AI

For decades, techno-futurists have been worried about that doomsday moment when electronic brains and robots got to be as smart as us. This 'us and them' divide, where humans and machines are thought of as being separate, is pervasive. But as we debate endlessly what we mean by human consciousness and the possibilities and perils of a purely artificial intelligence, a blend of the two presents yet another possibility that deserves more attention.

Millions of primitive cyborgs walk among us already. Over the past decades, humans have gradually fused with devices such as pacemakers, contact lenses, insulin pumps, and cochlear and retinal implants. Deep-brain implants, known as "brain pacemakers", now alleviate the symptoms of tens of thousands of Parkinson's sufferers.

This should come as no surprise. Since the first humans picked up sticks and flints and started using tools, we've been augmenting ourselves. Look around at the Science Museum Group's collections of millions of things, from difference engines to smartphones, and you can see how people have always exploited new technical leaps, so that the rise of ever-smarter machines does not mean a world of us or them but an enhancement of human capabilities.

Researchers are now looking at exoskeletons to help the infirm to walk, and implants to allow paralysed people to control prosthetic limbs and digital tattoos that can be stamped on to the body to harvest physiological data or interface with our surroundings, for instance with the cloud or Internet of Things.

When it comes to thinking machines, some are even investigating how to enhance human brain power with electronic plug-ins and other "smartware". The US. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has launched the Restoring Active Memory program to reverse damage caused by a brain injury with neuroprosthetics that sense memory deficits and restore normal function.

They work in a quite different way to our brains at present but, thanks the Human Brain Project, Virtual Physiological Human and other big brain projects, along with research in neuromorphics, artificial intelligences could become more like our own as time goes by. Meanwhile, there have been attempts to use cultured brain cells to control robots, flight simulators and more.

Within a few decades, it won't be so easy to tell humans and thinking machines apart as a result of this creeping, organic transhumanism. Eventually, many of us won't solely rely on the meat machines in our heads to ponder the prospect of artificial machines that think: the substrate of future thoughts will sit somewhere on a continuum within a rainbow of intelligences, from regular-I to AI.