HBO
Computer Science

The Future is Now

The artificial intelligence future in HBO’s “Westworld” might not be too far away.

Advancing technology has always been a double-edged sword. The excitement of making things easier, faster, and better is often dampened by the fear that technology could become too progressive, filling today’s human jobs with robots, and even posing an existential threat to human existence.

Still one thing separates man from its technological creations: self-awareness. It’s that conscious knowledge of your own identity – and your thoughts, feelings, and motivations – that sets humanity apart. Today, we don’t need to worry about robots or computers turning on us, as portrayed in HBO’s Westworld. But that future may not be too far off, according to experts in the field. Robots powered with artificial intelligence are already on their way to reaching that level of recognition, some say, and it’s just a matter of time before today’s tech toys become our equals.

The capabilities of AI were addressed explicitly in Westworld's plot

The 10-episode sci-fi series centers around robotic “hosts” in a Western theme park, and questions whether they’re capable of developing memories – despite having records periodically wiped from their databases – realizing what they are and understanding the world around them. The co-creator of the theme park, Robert, appears to balance on the edge of making the hosts increasingly lifelike, but still manageable.

Slowly, a handful of hosts begin to travel down the path toward self-awareness – a journey that either drives them insane, or incites violent outbursts as they fight for their freedom. The season finale culminates with Dolores (the first, and arguably most reliable host) putting a gun to Robert’s head – after learning that he was the one guiding the hosts and prompting them to awaken – and opening fire on a group of investors gathered for a gala.

The Robots have escaped!

Why, then, are humans so fascinated with pursuing a technology that could lead to their destruction?

“We've always been fascinated with new inventions of any kind. First, because they have this possibility of making our lives easier or simpler in some ways,” says Chuck Anderson, a professor of computer science at Colorado State University. “When it comes to an AI creation, it's that plus the social aspect, the companionship. It's really appealing to us. Maybe it's because we want to have that and still feel like we maintain some control over it.”

Perhaps some, such as Westworld’s William (AKA The Man in Black) crave the sense of adventure and thrill that would come with the hosts being able “to fight back,” as he put it. Others may simply be curious as to whether it’s possible to create life out of just materials.

“People always had this question of how do you breathe life into matter? Today we have better tools and faster computers and larger budgets, but we still have to have this ultimate challenge,” says Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University. “There's also this element of understanding something, that creating something is the best way to understand something. We have all these nagging questions about what does it mean to be human? By creating, we can have a better understanding about them.”

"The real emotions in a machine stem from self-awareness. We have robots that take all of this machine learning and use it … they turn the artificial intelligence capacity inwards rather than outwards, and begin to create an image of themselves.”

It’s true that society has been attracted to the idea of giving technology human traits. Today some of our most mundane devices are equipped with artificial intelligence. We can speak to our smartphones and other devices and ask them questions. Driverless cars are beginning to function more regularly. But the basis for some of those more advanced technologies was developed decades ago.

Ray Kurzweil, a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, for example, is credited with paving the way for voice recognition technologies. He created the first print-to-speech reading machine, which can help visually impaired individuals, and created the first voice synthesizer. By the 1980s, he had developed computer speech recognition systems for commercial use.

Kurzweil has said that the existence of artificial intelligence can increase our mental capabilities. And it is apparent that there is an appetite for learning more about this field, as robotics programs are being integrated into educational programs.

Dr. Ray Kurzweil receives the 1999 NMTI from President Bill Clinton

Dean Kamen, a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, has been recognized for sparking an interest in science and technology among individuals, particularly younger students. His national youth organization, FIRST, hosts an annual robotics competition for students, combining certain aspects of sport with academics.

With the constant work toward improving robotics and artificial intelligence, and the apparent growing interest in these fields, it may be inevitable that technological creations achieve self-awareness.

“I think we're 50 years away from that,” Lipson says. “It will definitely happen within the lifetime of our grandchildren. Even though it might sound like a long time, it's a blip in human evolution.”

In fact, robots are already achieving self-awareness in some primitive ways, according to Lipson.

“Many robots today can fake self-awareness. They can fake a smile, and pretend to be happy or sad,” he says. “The real emotions in a machine stem from self-awareness. We have robots that take all of this machine learning and use it … they turn the artificial intelligence capacity inwards rather than outwards, and begin to create an image of themselves.”

Lipson says a robot he developed that resembles a spider, for example, appeared to develop its own self image after four days, recognizing that it had four legs, knew how it could move, and knew what it was.

A rendering of Dr. Lipson's self aware robot. Image Credit to Victor Zykov

“It was something we didn’t program in there,” he says. “I would argue that higher levels of self-awareness, like humans, are similar, but much more sophisticated. Nonetheless, it’s an image we've formed of ourselves based on experiences.”

But realizing that robots are capable of this kind of cognition poses some serious ethical quandaries.

People who research artificial intelligence and machine learning are already aware of the risks associated with the potential power of these advancements, Anderson says.

“We’re starting to see conference sessions and classes to discuss the ethics of robot design and computer learning,” he says. “We’re seeing the power that a computer can gain just by ‘practice makes perfect,’ and data.”

While one way to prevent an outburst of violence could be to frame “the objective of their existence” in a certain way, according to Anderson, there are still many unanswered questions. Even if robots are programmed with the highest priority to not harm other robots or humans, there’s still the potential for a slip.

“It’s no different than humans,” Anderson says. “If a robot or a human is trying to satisfy multiple objectives, sometimes we focus on the wrong one. That will be very real.”

While the potential for robots to become too powerful is a slippery slope, that future is inevitable, according to Lipson. That inevitability could come with benefits – better and more efficient health care, education, or safety measures. But there are just as many risks, such as military robots, surveillance, censorship, and a loss of jobs.

“This is the dark side of artificial intelligence and it's definitely part and parcel,” Lipson says. “My personal view is the risk is worth the benefit. It's sort of like fire – the benefit is worth the risk. But we do have to be very aware of the risks and prepare accordingly.”

“When you talk about risks of artificial intelligence, I firmly believe long before AI will do things to humans, humans will do things to humans using AI,” Lipson adds. “I'm worried that the takeover is not necessarily going to be violent. Humans find it much more interesting and enjoyable to interact with AI than with other humans because interacting with other humans is difficult and challenging sometimes. It could be more like these immersive worlds. It could be this situation where humanity falls apart just because people spend their life in a virtual environment.”