Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

SXSW Anti-Robot Protesters Call for ‘Morality in Computing’

Anti-robot protesters march in Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest festival. (Infowars screen grab)

Anti-robot protesters march in Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest festival. (Infowars screen grab)

Anti-robot demonstrators took to the streets of Austin, Texas during the popular South by Southwest culture and technology festival to protest the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and call for what they called “morality in computing.”

Wearing ‘Stop the Robots’ t-shirts and chanting “I say robot, you say no-bot,” dozens of protesters, many of them engineering students from the nearby University of Texas, Austin, railed against what they believe is the dangerous rise of robots as AI becomes less the stuff of science fiction and moves closer to reality.

“This is is about morality in computing,” 23-year-old protest organizer Adam Mason, a computer engineer, told USA Today. “Planes can fly themselves, but the person who is ultimately responsible for landing a plane is a human.”

While many people welcome the exciting potential of AI, others, including some notable experts, have warned of the dangers posed by the revolutionary technology, part of an ongoing debate about the roles and risks of robots that traces its roots to science fiction classics including Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, and the Alien, Terminator and Matrix film series, to name but a few prominent examples.

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge in England, told the BBC last December he believes “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

“It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” Hawking said of AI. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who has made a fortune betting on future technologies and trends, sounded the alarm over AI last summer when he tweeted it could unleash a catastrophe exceeding the devastation of even a nuclear war.

“Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom,” Musk said. “We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.”

Musk was referring to a book by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, which asks what happens when machines pass human beings in intelligence, and whether AI will save or destroy humanity.

“As the fate of gorillas now depends more on humans than on the species itself, so would the fate of humankind depend on the actions of the machine superintelligence,” states the Amazon.com summary for the book.

Other futurists, such as Google’s Ray Kurzweil, are much more optimistic about the role of AI in future society. Kurzweil believes the singularity, or the moment when AI surpasses human intelligence (Kurzweil predicts this will occur around 2045), will usher in an era of unprecedented technological advancement, including practical immortality, as humans will be able to effectively upload and store their brain content on computers.

“If you look at video games and how we went from Pong to the virtual reality we have available today, it is highly likely that immortality in essence will be possible,” said Kurzweil.

Rollo Carpenter, creator of Cleverbot, a web application that uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to have realistic conversations with humans, is also more optimistic about AI’s impact on humanity.

“I believe we will remain in charge of the technology for a decently long time and the potential of it to solve many of the world problems will be realized,” Carpenter told the BBC. “We cannot quite know what will happen if a machine exceeds our own intelligence, so we can’t know if we’ll be infinitely helped by it, or ignored by it and sidelined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”

“People worry about robots taking over the world, but I assure you there are much more dangerous things (income inequality and global warming) in front of the line,” Phil Libin, CEO of software company Evernote, told USA Today. “Humans should be more worried about other humans.”

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