Tag Archives: tech

Six Technologies The Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic Could Accelerate

Humanity is capable of amazing feats when given the right incentive and circumstances. The problem is that humanity is also rather stubborn when it comes to incentives and exceedingly evasive when it comes to changing circumstances. We’ll go the extra distance and beat the odds eventually. We just need to be dragged kicking and screaming for a while.

When it comes to the ultimate incentives and circumstances, few check more boxes than a global pandemic. I don’t think I need to belabor how bad the ongoing Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has been. Even without media distortions and political agendas, there’s no getting around the damage it has and continues to inflict.

People are dying.

People suffering.

Societies and economies are teetering on the brink of collapse.

This is not a tenable situation and one nobody wants to see again. As bad as it is, there might be one silver lining to this global tragedy. It could help accelerate the development of technology that was already in the works, but lacked the necessary motivation to develop faster.

What follows are a few technologies that I believe this horrible pandemic might help in the sense that it’ll add some urgency. Nobody wants to see a mess like this again. Whether you’re rich, poor, powerful, or powerless, we have every reason to find new ways of preventing these plagues before they happen and these technologies are instrumental in doing just that.


Artificial Intelligence (Not Necessarily The Advanced Kind)

It’s impossible to overstate the potential benefits of artificial intelligence. I’ve certainly made a concerted effort when writing about it in the past. However, in the context of battling plagues, we don’t necessarily need the kind of super-advanced, super-intelligent AI to provide some of those benefits. When it comes to combating plagues, we don’t need an AI to be as intelligent as a human. We just need it to help us combat deadly disease.

This can be done without the kind of AI that finds its way into Skynet or Hal 9000. An AI that can better-analyze genetic data, run simulations on possible treatments, and track the spread of a disease can do plenty to prevent or mitigate future plagues. If it can just help us identify and isolate new cases in a short span of time, then that alone could save millions.

At a certain point, AI could get powerful enough to calculate entire treatment programs once it has the genetic data of a pathogen or condition. After this global, well-publicized crisis, it’ll have plenty of data to work with.


Space-Based Broadband Internet

When it comes to dealing with pandemics, the incentives don’t stop at treating the disease. Given all the closures and cancellations caused by COVID-19, we now know how challenging it is to endure an extended quarantine, especially for kids with no school and sports fans with no sports.

Enduring this crisis has revealed just how critical it is to have a strong, robust internet connection. It may not treat the disease, but it makes the measures recommended by the authorities more bearable. The problem is our current infrastructure for the internet is badly in need of upgrades and its role in helping us function has been made abundantly clear during this crisis.

For work, play, and just avoiding crippling boredom, we need a better internet. That’s where space-based internet, like the ones being developed by companies like FaceBook and Google come in. The idea is as simple as it is awesome. Use satellites and other high-flying crafts to deliver data more efficiently and reliably.

There are a few space-based internet service providers now, but they’re incredibly limited. This crisis, which needs reliable internet for so many reasons, might help pick up the pace in refining this technology. At the very least, it will allow people to binge-watch Netflix from the summit of Mount Everest.


Nanoparticle Vaccines

On the medical side of things, this crisis should go a long way towards teaching people the importance of vaccines. While I don’t doubt the anti-vax crowd will find an excuse to protest, even those skeptical of modern medicine can’t deny the need for better preventative measures for these treatments. Unfortunately, vaccine technology has been stagnant for decades.

This pandemic will hopefully change that and not a minute too soon. The current process for producing a vaccine is long and cumbersome, taking upwards of two years. It’s a process that has a lot of room for improvement. That’s where technology like nanoparticles come in.

The key to any medical treatment is the effectiveness of the delivery system. Vaccines have always had to take a messy path, but nanoparticles could change that. Instead of relying on the biological equivalent of a blunt instrument, nanoparticles could become biological smart-bombs, targeting pathogens with the precision we need to keep them from ever becoming pandemics.

Anti-vaxxers who refuse these just have a death with.


Gene Editing/Synthetic Biology

Not unlike vaccines, gene editing and synthetic biology stand to get a major boost from this crisis. I’ve written about gene editing tool like CRISPR in the past. I’ve touted it as a tool that could potentially treat all infectious disease, especially when combined with synthetic biology. That might have been hyperbole, but I stand by my claims on it’s potential.

Gene editing can do more than make pet fish glow. In theory, it can tweak and rewrite the DNA of organism, including the viruses that infect us. The challenge is refining the procedure so that we know how to modify diseases or create entirely new organisms that combat them through synthetic biology.

It’s not a small challenge. I’m grossly oversimplifying the obstacles in refining this technology into something usable. However, those obstacles are not insurmountable. It just requires time, resources, and motivation. After being economically and socially ravaged by a global pandemic, these efforts will have a lot more urgency.


Immersive Virtual Reality

While the scientists and doctors take up the challenge of fighting future pandemics, the rest of us are tasked with enduring the boredom they incur. I’ve noted before how boredom could become the plague of the future. I hope those stuck at home for weeks on end are done doubting me.

The entertainment industry may never be as vital as the medical industry, but it’ll play an important role in helping people stay sane, calm, and kind. Binge-watching TV and playing video games is helpful, but there’s room for improvement. At the end of the day, you’re still just sitting on a couch, looking at a screen.

To keep things both interesting and active, the development of virtual reality should get a major boost. It has existed for years and grown considerably from the days of the Virtual Boy, but it has room for improvement. Thanks to improving computer technology and more advanced interfaces like Neuralink, the experience could become even more immersive.

Beyond simply treating boredom, it could allow a greater sense of active engagement, which is critical when everyone is practicing social distancing. Being isolated and cut off from human contact may help temper a plague, but it’s not healthy. A way to immerse yourself in a realistic environment could help make future quarantines more bearable while also opening a new market, which gaming companies are sure to exploit.


Sex Robots (Obviously)

Does this one really need an explanation? When you’re stuck inside, horny, and run out of things to binge-watch, things are going to happen. Even if your partner or significant other is with you, they might get sick and you might feel lonely. Given how pandemics tend to temper the market for sex workers, a sex robot might be the best and only option.

If at least one company or horny entrepreneur hasn’t realized that by now, I’ll be shocked. The market for sex robots has been growing in recent years. After enduring a pandemic and weeks of social isolation, that market has likely grown. People rarely forget big global events like this. They’ll remember how lonely they were and that memory will fuel the development of sex robots more than any libido.

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Who Will Be The First (Digitally) Immortal Celebrity?

Back in 2012, Tupac Shakur appeared in concert at Coachella in 2012. That’s quite a feat, considering he died in 1996. The Tupac at the concert was just a hologram, but even his digital presence helped make that concert an experience to remember.

In 2019, Samuel L. Jackson played a young Nick Fury in the “Captain Marvel” movie. That too is quite a feat, considering Mr. Jackson was 70 years old at the time. He was able to appear young, thanks to advanced CGI that effectively de-aged him.

Other dead celebrities have shown up in other media. The since deceased Peter Cushing reprised his role as Grand Moff Tarken in “Star Wars: Rogue One” thanks to similar CGI technology. Paul Walker was able to get a proper send-off in “Fast and Furious 7” after his tragic death thanks to this technology. As the technology improves and other famous celebrities pass on, this practice is likely to continue and expand.

That raises some interesting questions that has some profound, yet disturbing implications. Some of those questions are easier to answer than others. This is the easy one.

Will there eventually be a celebrity who becomes digitally immortal?

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is eventually, but there will be some complications along the way.

Modern CGI technology is amazing. We’ve come a long way from the flashy, but wholly unrealistic graphics of “Tron.” Through the development of technology like artificial intelligence deep fakes, which has its own mix of dystopian uses, it’s possible to replicate someone’s appearance, voice, and mannerisms. This replication isn’t perfect, but it’s getting to a point where it’s hard to tell it’s fake.

As this technology improves, it’ll get to a point where a rendering of a celebrity isn’t just indistinguishable from the real celebrity. It’ll be capable of saying, doing, and acting in any way a studio or producer would want. While that has some dangerous possibilities for political ads and porn, it could also completely change the entertainment industry.

That Tupac hologram I mentioned earlier was basically just a recording synched to a projection. Even though Samuel L. Jackson was de-aged in Captain Marvel,” the actor still had to be there to give him the necessary voice, mannerisms, and attitude. He couldn’t have been a hologram and be believable. The technology just isn’t there yet.

It will get there, though. There doesn’t need to be some huge leap in computer technology or artificial intelligence to make an entirely digital celebrity. It’s just a matter of processing power, data crunching, and better hardware. It will happen. It might even happen within the next couple decades. That raises another key question.

Who will be the first digitally immortal celebrity?

By digitally immortal, I don’t just mean recordings set to holograms or faces projected onto body doubles. A truly digitally immortal celebrity will be capable of starring in new movies and TV shows long after their dead. They’ll be able to make new music and perform it, albeit through a hologram. While their bodies might be gone, they’ll never stop contributing to pop culture.

That definitely has some legal implications. I doubt any studio could get away with creating a digital rendering of Carrie Fisher to star in a new movie. However, I suspect one celebrity will eventually license their figure and likeness so that they can keep being celebrities, long after they’re dead. Maybe they’ll do it so their families can be fincianlly set for life. Maybe they’ll do it because they never want to leave the public eye.

Whatever their reasons, someone will eventually do this. It’s just a question of who.

Will it be Taylor Swift?

Will it be Tom Cruise?

Will it be Jennifer Lopez?

Will it be Samuel L. Jackson?

It’s hard to say. If I had to bet money, I’d put it on Samuel L. Jackson. Knowing Disney and their vast resources, I’d be shocked if they weren’t investing in this technology this instant. Bankable celebrities are an increasingly precious commodity in the entertainment world. The incentives are there. It’s just a matter of time and a matter of whom.

Personally, I’d love to hear Samuel L. Jackson call people motherfuckers for generations to come. That’s just me.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, futurism

How Do We Regulate Artificial Intelligence? Seriously, How?

In general, I don’t pay much attention to doomsayers who claim the end is near and we should all cower, tremble, and give them our credit card number. Don’t get me wrong. I still believe there are serious existential threats facing humanity today. Some are worth taking seriously and dedicating resources to addressing. Others are not. Some simply require a more balanced perspective.

There’s a long list of failed apocalyptic predictions. The fact we’re surviving and thriving by most measures shows just how resilient, adaptable, and capable humanity is. There are some threats that I believe humanity will eventually resolve, thanks largely to our accelerating progress in science, technology, and logistics.

Others, however, have me more concerned. While some are more immediate than others, one in particular continues to confound me, as well as some of the smartest people in the world. It involves artificial intelligence, an emerging technology that’s as promising as it is unpredictable. Given the complexity of this technology, it’s difficult to explain in totality, but it can be best summed up by one simple question.

How do you regulate artificial intelligence?

That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s not a thought experiment either. It’s a serious, honest question that people far smarter and far more capable than me are just starting to ask.

Elon Musk is one of them. Very recently, he called for more regulation on artificial intelligence. That, alone, should be both telling and worrying. This man is a billionaire. Usually, billionaires are more inclined advocate removing regulations. Whenever they make an exception, that’s a sign they know it’s serious.

Even though Musk is one of the top advocates for solving big problems with technology, he still has concerns about the problems associated with artificial intelligence. In AI circles, it’s often called the control problem. It’s not a very creative name, but it gets the point across.

How do you control something that is potentially as smart, if not smarter than a human?

How do you manage something that thinks, adapts, and evolves faster than any machine or living thing?

How do you regulate an artificial intelligence that was built by humans, but isn’t at all human?

These are all difficult questions to contemplate, let alone legislate. Even Musk doesn’t provide specifics. Chances are he doesn’t know any more than the rest of the non-billionaire population. That’s a problem because if we’re going to try and regulate this technology, we need to understand it. On top of that, politicians and lawmakers have a long and embarrassing history of failing to understand technology.

However, this isn’t just about writing laws that protect citizens from being exploited by tech companies. Artificial intelligence, especially the kind that exceeds human intelligence, has capabilities that go beyond sending text messages from bathroom stalls. If handled improperly, it wouldn’t just be an existential threat. It could destroy humanity in ways we literally cannot contemplate.

Now, I try to be an optimist in most things involving emerging technology. Humanity has found a way to manage dangerous technology before, namely with nuclear weapons. However, artificial intelligence is a different beast entirely. Regulating it isn’t as easy as simply controlling the materials that make it. The very concept of regulating this technology lacks precedent.

The closest we have to date is Isaac Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics, which were introduced in 1942. Asimov was a brilliant writer and very ahead of his time on some concepts, but this is one issue where we need more than just three simple tenants. We need to think bigger and bolder. If we don’t, then an advanced artificial intelligence will quickly leave us behind.

After that, it won’t matter what kind of regulations we try to pass. It’ll be smart enough to circumvent them. That doesn’t mean humanity is doomed at that point, but we’ll be distressingly vulnerable. I know it’s in our nature to procrastinate on things we don’t see as vital, but if ever there was an issue to make an exception, this is it.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, futurism, philosophy, technology, Thought Experiment

A Comment On Bill Maher’s (Dystopian) Rant About Sex Robots

Remember that time someone old, out of touch, and under-informed made an accurate prediction about the impact of emerging technology? That’s not a rhetorical question. Honestly, does anyone remember that ever happening to a meaningful extent?

I ask because it’s been happening for years. People keep seeing an amazing new technology and assume the worst. In some cases, they’re just dead wrong about trends that will or won’t catch on. Some just made dead wrong assumptions about how technology and society would evolve.

At the end of the day, nobody truly knows for sure. It’s fun to speculate, especially when that technology involves sex robots. I know I’ve entertained some colorful possibilities and potential issues, but I never claim I know for certain. I try not to be overly optimistic, but I don’t try to be downright fatalistic, either.

Then, there’s Bill Maher’s latest rant about the future of sex robots. I could try and break down every flaw in his commentary, but I’ll let the clip speak for itself.

Now, I need to disclose that I’m a fan of Bill Maher. I like his show. I think he’s funny. He’s got a great wit and a dry style that I’ve always found entertaining. When it comes to technology, though, he’s more a chronic whiner than a visionary.

He compares social media to cigarettes and complains about how technology has become too complicated. For a man who’s over 60, that’s not surprising. However, for someone smart enough to stay on TV for over three decades, it’s still absurd.

Deconstructing his rant is not that hard. Maher frames the impact of sex robots as an either/or position. To him, people will either completely reject human intimacy for robots or reject robots in favor of human intimacy. However, he never justifies why people would choose only one or the other.

Would people only interact with a sex robot because they can have sex on a level that humans just can’t match? That assumes people are really basic and would all react the same if they somehow had access to a life-like sex robot. However, people are not basic. People are complicated. They have many different wants, needs, and attitudes. Maher himself has noted this when discussing other issues.

Sex robots will change human dynamics significantly. It won’t destroy them. It won’t completely destroy the whole of society. They’re not nuclear weapons. They’ll just change how things are and for older people, especially in Maher’s demographic, that can be scary. It’s easy to assume the worst, but it’s still an assumption and those are notoriously unreliable for predicting the future. The stock market alone is proof of that.

There are many other things I can say about Maher’s rant, but it would all come back to the same point. It’s just flawed and misguided. It assumes there’s not room for both human connection and sex robots in the future. Considering how adaptive and social humans are, I believe we’ll find a way to incorporate them into a new social dynamic that nobody can predict.

It’ll be nothing like Maher can ever imagine.

It’ll be nothing like I can imagine, either.

The future will still come. It’s just a matter of how we’ll adapt, evolve, and grow with it.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, sex in society, sex robots, sexuality, Sexy Future, technology

Texting, Sharing Feelings, And How Neuralink Could Revolutionize Both

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A while back, I speculated that memory enhancement might be the first “killer app” for brain implants. At the time, I thought my logic was solid. Every emerging technology needs that one lucrative use that makes it more than just a gimmick. Killer apps are what helped make smartphones more prevalent than toilets in some parts of the world. I believe brain implants will follow a similar path through companies like Neuralink.

I still believe that memory enhancement will be one of those functions that helps turn brain implants into a multi-billion-dollar industry and Elon Musk is likely to secure a share of those billions. However, after listening to the announcement that Musk gave earlier this year about the future of Neuralink, I’d like to revise my speculation a bit.

What Musk presented was plenty intriguing. Neuralink isn’t some wide-eyed fantasy endeavor conjured by an eccentric billionaire. It’s a real company seeking to develop real products that’ll create a whole new market. Some of those early products are already taking shape.

Right now, the goal is simple. Before humans can link their brains to a simulated world on par with “The Matrix,” they first have to develop a means of interfacing with a basic computer. That kind of technology is not fanciful science fiction. We’ve already successfully inserted brain implants into monkeys, which they’ve used to interface with computers.

At this point, linking a brain to a computer isn’t that great a feat, which is why Musk noted that the first prototypes were being developed to assist quadriplegics. They have much more to gain by being able to interact with a computer. The same can’t be said for most people. Why would they undergo invasive brain surgery just so they could send text messages without typing them?

This is where I believe there’s some untapped potential that Neuralink is in a perfect position to realize. It might even be more feasible in the near-term than memory enhancement, as both a product and a killer app. It’s the kind of function that wouldn’t just convince people to let someone stick electrodes into their brains. It could revolutionize how people communicate with one another.

To understand the extent of that potential, take a moment to look at the last five text messages you sent through your smartphone. It doesn’t matter who you sent them to or why. Just take a step back and consider the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of communication.

In terms of strengths, it’s simple and consistent. It doesn’t matter if you’re a poor speaker or have anxiety issues. As long as you can type out the words and the receiver can read them, you can convey a message that instantly travels from one side of the planet to another. As a communications tool, it’s quite revolutionary, especially when you consider how difficult it was to send messages in the past.

At the same time, it has some major limitations. Texting is so impersonal. Even with the benefit of emojis, it’s still just text on a screen. It can’t convey a sense of nuance or subtext. There’s no undertone to decipher or facial cues to note. While this can make the message more objective, it also makes it feel cold and unemotional. It’s part of why breaking up with someone via text is so taboo.

With those limitations in mind, imagine having the ability to convey a feeling to go along with a text message. Instead of an emoji, you included the emotional context of that message. Maybe you were angry, upset, offended, or elated. It doesn’t have to be too complex. It just has to give a dramatic weight to the emotion.

You send that message knowing the person on the other end could experience it too. They don’t have to read the words and surmise your feelings. They know because they get to experience them too. They feel what you felt when you sent that message. They feel it in a way that no amount of facial cues or subtext can adequately convey.

When you text someone you love them, they can feel your love.

When you text someone you’re angry, they can feel the extent of your anger.

When you text someone you’re seriously depressed, they know it’s not a joke.

This sort of insight is unprecedented. It’s also a function that companies like Neuralink can make a reality and market it as a revolutionary form of communication. It wouldn’t require that we completely abandon our current methods of communication. People would still need their smartphones and computers. This would just be a way of augmenting those tools.

Once a brain implant can link up to a smartphone, then there’s suddenly a new communications channel the likes of which we’ve never had. That channel need not be restricted to moving a cursor or typing out letters on a screen. These commands are simply brain signals coded by implants and transmitted to a device that can make sense of them. Our feelings are just a different kind of signal.

Modern neuroscience already has a comprehensive understanding of where emotions come from. A brain implant could simply take signals from those parts of our brain, code them in a way our smartphone can interpret, and package them in a way that can be transmitted and received by another user.

It’s not telepathy. It’s not complex thought or ideas, either. These are the kinds of feelings and emotions that almost everyone experiences in some form or another. Our natural empathy may allow us to relate to one another as a social species, but we’ve never been able to truly share our feelings in a way that others can experience.

I know the idea of sharing feelings has gained a corny connotation, but I think a part of that has to do with how inefficient our current system is. Even before smartphones and texting, our age-old traditions of talking to one another, deciphering tone, and reading body language has left us with plenty of room for improvement.

It doesn’t matter how empathetic or understanding you are. At the end of the day, when someone shares their feelings, you’re still guessing the details and trying to mirror them within your brain. While that has taken us far as a species, in terms of forming social bonds and coordinating as a group, brain implants could take it to another level.

Once we can transmit our feelings with the same ease we do with a text message, then that takes us into uncharted territory. Armed with this tool, we wouldn’t just be able to communicate over vast distances. We’d be able to convey genuine, intimate feelings. Our brains are already wired to form strong social bonds with others. This technology would effectively supercharge it.

It certainly wouldn’t stop with just two people sending a text message with a happiness emotion attached to it. Once emotions can be transmitted like a text message, then there’s no reason they can’t be shared the same way we share everything else on social media. While some may recoil at the idea of sharing something so intimate, trend is already ongoing. Sharing feelings on a mass scale would just accelerate that trend.

The impact this will have on people is difficult to determine. Like I said before, this is uncharted territory. We’ve never had the ability to both know and share the intimate feelings of other people. Would that make us more empathetic? Would that make us more loving? I’ve argued before that it likely will, but I also don’t deny that some may handle it worse than others.

Whatever form Neuralink’s products take, there’s no denying the potential of this technology. There are still technical and engineering challenges, but that has never scared off Elon Musk or ambiguous billionaires like him. Human beings already have an innate need to connect with one another. Smartphones, texting, and every other communications tool we’ve ever created reflect that desire.

The market for those tools is already strong. The market for something that can communicate on a more intimate level will likely be even stronger. Even if the ultimate goal of Neuralink is to help humanity interact with an advanced artificial Intelligence, a good first step would be to help improve our ability to interact with one another.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, Neuralink, psychology, technology

Kids, Technology, And The Growing Bond Between Them

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Last year, I explored the idea of children being raised by intelligent robots. For the most part, it was a thought experiment. I approached it in the context of a technology that won’t be implemented anytime soon. Robotics technology hasn’t advanced to the point where it can properly mimic human-like behaviors, although Boston Dynamics is getting pretty damn close.

We also don’t have an artificial intelligence that could properly mirror human levels of intelligence, let alone basic parenting skills. Even when our technology gets to that level, it’ll probably still be a while before people start trusting it with children. Most people today probably recoil at the idea of a robot raising their kids, even if it were programmed with all the best parenting skills.

I tend to share that sentiment. While I’m generally of the opinion that technology will be a net positive, even for something as potentially dangerous as artificial intelligence, the idea of any non-human system raising kids just doesn’t seem workable. Recently, I’ve had to reassess that notion.

Over the past couple years, some close friends and relatives of mine welcomed their first children into the world. I’ve been lucky enough to share in some of these monumental moments. I’ve watched these kids grow from newborn infants into adorable toddlers. Some already know me as their awesome uncle.

While I could spend all day describing how adorable they are, I’ve noticed something remarkable in their growth that no generation before them has experienced before. It has to do with the way in which they interact with technology. I would even argue it’s gone a step further than basic interaction. It’s almost a bond at this point.

I first noticed when I saw a kid who wasn’t even two-years-old use his mother’s smartphone. Granted, he didn’t use it to do anything too fancy, but he was able to open apps, interact with icons, and do more than just put it in his mouth, which counted as a major feat for him.

He wasn’t the only one, either. You don’t have to look far to see videos of infants using tablets. Some use it better than others. I’ve met some who use it better than many adults. If you need further proof, check out this video of a two-year-old operating an iPad back in 2010.

Not surprisingly, this has already caused concerns among parents, teachers, and doctors. There is genuine, legitimate concern about what these devices are doing to the minds of young children. While the research on this impact is still ongoing and inconclusive, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. These devices exist, kids are using them, and they’re using them quite well.

I believe this has implications beyond causing yet another moral panic about how strange new technology affects children. Make no mistake. There will be a moral panic. I know because I lived through something similar when I was a kid.

Back then, the big fear was about television. Parents, teachers, and doctors were genuinely concerned about all the time kids were spending watching TV. Some went so far as to claim that they were letting TV raise their kids. I question whether these people understood how a TV worked.

Television is an entirely passive technology. You turn it on, pick a channel, and that’s all you can control. Until recently, it wasn’t very interactive. As a kid, I just saw it as another form of entertainment, like comic books, video games, and sports. These tablets that kids are using now are considerably different.

These aren’t devices that just flash colorful images in front of a kid to entertain them. Kids actually interact with these things. They can guide and manipulate what happens on the screen. Many tablets offer applications specifically tailored for children and can be valuable learning tools. A TV show can only do so much to teach a kid skills. An interactive application can do so much more.

At the moment, most of these applications are basically interactive games. Once artificial intelligence enters the equation, the potential changes considerably. Robot pets are becoming more sophisticated, operating on a level that makes it easier to establish a genuine bond with them. The same goes for virtual assistants. They were once a novelty. Now, they’re a mundane feature of most gadgets.

The kids being born today are entering a world where these same assistants are growing alongside them. They’re getting smarter with each passing day. At some point, they may become a more trustworthy source of information for kids than parents. Given the tendency of parents to lie to their kids, even if it’s for their own good, this could be a game-changer for kids and parents alike.

Going back to some of the kids in my own family, I’ve seen signs of this change. Some kids get genuinely upset when you take a tablet or smartphone away from them. They’ll react stronger than they would if someone took a treat or toy away from them. It gives the impression that these devices aren’t just toys to them. They’re something so much greater.

That has potential benefits and drawbacks. In terms of benefits, these devices and the applications they utilize could help children learn faster and more effectively at young ages. Just being able to effectively utilize a smartphone or tablet is a useful skill in almost any profession. A kid who literally grew up with this technology is going to have an edge over their elders in that respect.

There will still be costs. Kids who grow up around these devices and the connected world they link to could be prone to less-than-positive influences. They’ll be surrounded by the forces of outrage culture, online harassment, fake news, and professional trolls. It’s hard enough for adults to deal with these kinds of issues. For young kids who grew up in this system, it could be even harder.

At the moment, there are too many unknowns. One way or another, this technology exists and kids as young as one are capable of using it. They’re growing up with it. They’re bonding with it. The same goes for the technology itself. As it evolves and advances, it may get to a point where it’s a greater authority figure than any parent. At that point, robots raising kids might seem entirely natural.

I don’t claim to know how it will play out. At times, I do worry about the kids in my family or the kids I may have at some point in my life. However, I still tend to be optimistic about how this technology will impact kids. As scary as it may be to think about technology raising kids, let’s not forget that there are still plenty of dumb parents out there whose kids can only benefit from this.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Current Events, futurism, psychology, technology

Killer Robots, Drone Warfare, And How Artificial Intelligence Might Impact Both

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On November 5, 2001, the history of warfare changed forever. On that date, an unmanned Predator drone armed with hellfire missiles killed Mohammed Atef, a known Al-Qaida military chief and the son-in-law to Osama Bin Laden. From a purely strategic standpoint, this was significant in that it proved the utility of a new kind of weapon system. In terms of the bigger picture, it marked the start of a new kind of warfare.

If the whole of human history has taught us anything, it’s that the course of that history changes when societies find new and devastating ways to wage war. In ancient times, to wage war, you needed to invest time and resources to train skilled warriors. That limited the scope and scale of war, although some did make the most of it.

Then, firearms came along and suddenly, you didn’t need a special warrior class. You just needed to give someone a gun, teach them how to use it, and organize them so that they could shoot in a unit. That raised both the killing power and the devastating scale of war. The rise of aircraft and bombers only compounded that.

In the 20th century, warfare became so advanced and so destructive that the large-scale wars of the past just aren’t feasible anymore. With the advent of nuclear weapons, the potential dangers of such a war are so great that no spoils are worth it anymore. In the past, I’ve even noted that the devastating power of nuclear weapons have had a positive impact on the world, albeit for distressing reasons.

Now, drone warfare has added a new complication. Today, drone strikes are such a common tactic that it barely makes the news. The only time they are noteworthy is when one of those strikes incurs heavy civilian casualties. It has also sparked serious legal questions when the targets of these strikes are American citizens. While these events are both tragic and distressing, there’s no going back.

Like gunpowder before it, the genie is out of the bottle. Warfare has evolved and will never be the same. If anything, the rise of combat drones will only accelerate the pace of change with respect to warfare. Like any weapon before it, some of that change will be negative, as civilian casualties often prove. However, there also potential benefits that could change more than just warfare.

Those benefits aren’t limited to keeping keep soldiers out of combat zones. From a cost standpoint, drones are significantly cheaper. A single manned F-22 Raptor costs approximately $150 million while a single combat drone costs about $16 million. That makes drones 15 times cheaper and you don’t need to be a combat ace to fly one.

However, those are just logistical benefits. It’s the potential that drones have in conjunction with advanced artificial intelligence that could make them every bit as influential as nuclear weapons. Make no mistake. There’s plenty of danger in that potential. There always is with advanced AI. I’ve even talked about some of those risks. Anyone who has seen a single “Terminator” movie understands those risks.

When it comes to warfare, though, risk tolerance tends to be more complicated than anything you see in the movies. The risks of AI and combat drones have already sparked concerns about killer robots in the military. As real as those risks are, there’s another side to that coin that rarely gets discussed.

Think back to any story involving a drone strike that killed civilians. There are plenty of incidents to reference. Those drones didn’t act on orders from Skynet. They were ordered by human military personnel, attempting to make tactical decision on whatever intelligence they had available at the time. The drones may have done the killing, but a human being gave the order.

To the credit of these highly trained men and women in the military, they’re still flawed humans at the end of the day. No matter how ethically they conduct themselves, they’re ability to assess, process, and judge a situation is limited. When those judgments have lives on the line, both the stakes and the burdens are immense.

Once more advanced artificial intelligence enters the picture, the dynamics for drone warfare changes considerably. This isn’t pure speculation. The United States Military has gone on record saying they’re looking for ways to integrate advanced AI into combat drones. While they stopped short of confirming they’re working on their own version of Skynet, the effort to merge AI and combat drones is underway.

In an overly-simplistic way, they basically confirmed they’re working on killer robots. They may not look like the Terminator or Ultron, but their function is similar. They’re programmed with a task and that task may or may not involve killing an enemy combatant. At some point, a combat drone is going to kill another human being purely based on AI.

That assumes it hasn’t already happened. It’s no secret that the United States Military maintains shadowy weapons programs that are often decades ahead of their time. Even if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s only a matter of time. Once an autonomous drone kills another human being, we’ll have officially entered another new era of warfare.

In this era, there are no human pilots directing combat drones from afar. There’s no human being pulling the trigger whenever a drone launches its lethal payload into a combat situation. The drones act on their own accord. They assess all the intel they have on hand, process it at speeds far beyond that of any human, and render decisions in an instant.

It sounds scary and it certainly is. Plenty of popular media, as well as respected public figures, paint a terrifying picture of killer robots killing without remorse or concern. However, those worst-case-scenarios overlook both the strategic and practical aspect of this technology.

In theory, a combat drone with sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence will be more effective than any human pilot could ever be in a military aircraft. It could fly better, carrying out maneuvers that would strain or outright kill even the most durable pilots. It could react better under stressful circumstances. It could even render better judgments that save more lives.

Imagine, for a moment, a combat drone with systems and abilities so refined that no human pilot or officer could hope to match it. This drone could fly into a war zone, analyze a situation, zero in on a target, and attack with such precision that there’s little to no collateral damage.

If it wanted to take a single person out, it could simply fire a high-powered laser that hits them right in the brain stem.

If it wants to take out someone hiding in a bunker, it could utilize a smart bullet or a rail gun that penetrates every level of shielding and impacts only a limited area.

If it wants to take out something bigger, it could coordinate with other drones to hit with traditional missiles in such a way that it had no hope of defending itself.

Granted, drones this advanced probably won’t be available on the outset. Every bit of new technology goes through a learning curve. Just look at the first firearms and combat planes for proof of that. It takes time, refinement, and incentive to make a weapons system work. Even before it’s perfected, it’ll still have an impact.

At the moment, the incentives are definitely there. Today, the general public has a very low tolerance for casualties on both sides of a conflict. The total casualties of the second Iraq War currently sit at 4,809 coalition forces and 150,000 Iraqis. While that’s only a fraction of the casualties suffered in the Vietnam War, most people still deem those losses unacceptable.

It’s no longer feasible, strategically or ethically, to just blow up an enemy and lay waste to the land around them. Neither politics nor logistics will allow it. In an era where terrorism and renegade militias pose the greatest threat, intelligence and precision matter. Human brains and muscle just won’t cut it in that environment. Combat drones, if properly refined, can do the job.

Please note that’s a big and critical if. Like nuclear weapons, this a technology that nobody in any country can afford to misuse. In the event that a combat drone AI develops into something akin to Skynet or Ultron, then the amount of death and destruction it could bring is incalculable. These systems are already designed to kill. Advanced AI will just make them better at killing than any human will ever be.

It’s a worst-case scenario, but one we’ve managed to avoid with nuclear weapons. With advanced combat drones, the benefits might be even greater than no large-scale wars on the level of Word War II. In a world where advanced combat drones keep terrorists and militias from ever becoming too big a threat, the potential benefits could be unprecedented.

Human beings have been waging bloody, brutal wars for their entire history. Nuclear weapons may have made the cost of large wars too high, but combat drones powered by AI may finally make it obsolete.

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