laurence_c_smith's picture
Professor of Environmental Studies, Brown University; Author, Rivers of Power
After The Plug


What's the big deal about machines that think? For a small group of philosophers and theologians I get it, but for the rest of us artificial intelligence will just be the latest incremental step in a long stampede of technological encroachment that has already changed the world almost beyond recognition.

For that very important job of thinking that seeks to solve problems, there is little doubt that adaptive, machine-based learning will do better than any one human brain (or even an entire conference of experts). Machines already think more deeply about your consumer preferences than you, through creepy, financially-motivated adaptive algorithms that track your online behavior. But other purposes now underway include smarter policing, and identifying high-probability child abuse situations before they happen, both drawn from seemingly disjointed bits of information that are then pulled together to identify a broader pattern.

That process has been a hallmark of human thinking since we walked out onto the savannah, and as the world's problems become direr and more complicated, I am inclined to accept any effective tool to battle them. Looking ahead, I could live with a partnership with machine learning in order to make complex modern life more resource-efficient in a way that human brains cannot. I imagine a world of sustainably grown food, sufficient clean water for humans and ecosystems, and comfortable, energy efficient lodging is still possible, and could be aided in part by machines that think.

History suggests that the partnership will proceed in an incremental way, relatively unnoticed by busy people living out their busy lives. But, for the sake of argument, let us assume that our worst fears come true, things get out of hand, and at some point in the future thinking machines topple the 10,000+ year reign of Homo sapiens over Earth. Then what?

I have no doubt that we would somehow manage to pull the plug. A great re-toppling would occur, and we would once again regain dominion over the lands, oceans, and skies. Depending on the depth of the integration and the height of the fall, the human experience might even revert to something more closely resembling the world of ten millennia ago than of today, as we relearn from scratch the basics of food, water, shelter, and transport without the help of our thinking machines.