Is Isaac Asimov’s Robotic World Just Around the Corner?

By: Jack Bader

The possibility of machines becoming ‘human’ may just be around the corner according to a new book, The Singularity is Near, by inventor Ray Kurzweil. As a tech guy, this scares the hell out of me….or does it? Here’s some food for thought for the not-too-squeamish.

Many of us were required in high school to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This classic portrays a bewitching and insidious future where runaway science and mental manipulation are used to control the population. It is a frightening future that is often mentioned as something that we must diligently work to avoid…no matter what your political persuasion!
As a trustee for the X Prize Foundation I work with many amazingly accomplished individuals. This fall I will meet our newest trustee Ray Kurzweil, one of the leading inventors of our time and a well-known author. His list of inventions includes OCR systems, print-to-speech reading machines for the blind, CCD flatbed scanners, Kurzweil digital music synthesizers and the Dragon speech recognition system to name a few. In preparation for the next trustee meeting I decided to read Kurzweil’s latest book, The Singularity is Near.
I must say that it was rather shocking and eye-opening to me on many levels and has made me see our industry (and myself) through slightly different lenses. Kurzweil’s central ideas are

  • Technology is changing at exponential rates
  • Increased technology will allow us to mimic the human brain
  • Nanobots will provide us with increased abilities
  • Machines will be able to exponentially increase human’s ability to invent
  • When machines merge with humans the Singularity is here
  • Technology will allow life extension for humans

Wow! Is this science fiction? Is this science fact? This author is a highly respected inventor and businessman. I immediately thought of Michael Crichton’s nanobot horror tale Prey or any of The Matrix movies that portray technology running amok…is this what we are all working towards in our ever accelerating days?
As a pragmatic technology businessperson I realized long ago that “things just move forward” inexorably no matter how much we want to stop them. Water will always run downhill and you can only stop it for a short time before it continues rushing to the sea. This is why our business and yours is changing so much. My personal experience with the rate of change lends credence to Kurzweil’s central premise. To me, the disturbing part of The Singularity is Near is both societal and personal.
Singularity will be the point where machines have the ability to be sentient and even have emotions. It is in this area that Kurzweil also acknowledges potential problems:

  • AI computers that somehow turn evil
  • Nanotech devices that cause harm
  • Genetically engineered organisms that cause problems

He does advocate for scientific protocols that will prevent technology from causing problems for the rest of us. Nobody wants dangerous thinking pathogens running around. Who knows, perhaps it is also time to resurrect Isaac Asimov’s 1942 Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. Robots may not injure humans or allow a human to be injured
  2. Robots must obey humans except where such an order conflicts with the First Law
  3. Robots must protect their own lives as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law

Finally, I have always fancied myself as someone who would be current with anything technological for the rest of my life (which now may turn out to be centuries). Kurzweil’s book made me realize that most likely this will not be the case. Should the Singularity actually happen, no doubt I will be just another geezer who will want to use the old-fashioned mouse instead of taking an injection of nanobots and controlling all the machines with my thoughts.

Oh well, some things change and others stay the same!