The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why an AI takeover may not be a bad thing

The Shadow Dexterous robotic hand, manufactured by The Shadow Robot Co., has ultrasensitive touch sensors on the fingertips, making it the closest approximation of the human hand available. But it is still just a robot. (Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg News)

For years now, some of the smartest and most influential people on Earth have been warning about the dangers of artificial intelligence, laying out nightmarish scenarios that sound like they were pulled from the pages of a Hollywood script.

Tesla chief-executive-turned-flamethrower-merchant Elon Musk has warned of killer robots and “summoning the demon.” Stephen Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist, has given humanity a tight deadline for escaping the planet. Disease-fighting business magnate Bill Gates, meanwhile, has said he doesn’t understand why “some people are not concerned” about the threat posed by super-intelligent machines.

However, Kevin Kelly, the executive editor of Wired magazine, is offering a decidedly optimistic answer to Gates’s question. Contrasting humans with technology ignores something that has been true for the past 10,000 years or so — something there’s no coming back from, Kelly told a reporter at the World Government Summit in Dubai earlier this month.

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“I think that we, ourselves, are technology,” he said, appearing to imply that technology is an extension of biological evolution and central to what makes humans unique among animals. “We have invented ourselves. We have invented our humanity.”

“If we took all technology from our lives away, everything — fire, knives — humans would only last six months,” Kelly added. “We would be eaten by animals. We only can defend ourselves because of technology.”

Instead of summoning humanity’s end, Kelly argues that artificial intelligence is forcing humanity to reevaluate what it means to be human, raising philosophical questions that will force people to define “our humanity moving forward.”

“We are still in the process of making ourselves more human,” the eternal optimist said.

Among the tech forecasters sounding the alarm about AI, few have been as outspoken as Musk, who has recently begun warning about the dangers of autonomous weapons and calling for an international banning of them.

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Last year, Musk told a group of governors that they need to start regulating artificial intelligence, which he called a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” When pressed for concrete guidance, Musk said governments must get a better understanding of AI before it’s too late.

Kelly’s interview from the World Government Summit can be watched below.


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