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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Science friction

Why do we feel so threatened by machines?

Conceived in a traffic jam on Interstate 80, written the next day in a coffee shop at Lake Tahoe CA and sent via a free wi-fi service.

I can't remember the moment or place when my interest in science fiction was first ignited. But I can remember my earliest comic books, which included The Eagle and Superman.

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I can also remember listening to Dan Dare and Quatermass on the radio, followed by the first news reports of UFOs and alien abductions. I needed something to encourage me to learn to read and science fiction was it.

I soon discovered Jules Verne, HG Wells, and later my now absent friend Arthur C Clarke. There were many more of course. For my young mind it was the magic of dreams: a submarine powered by a force as powerful as the sun, X-ray vision, an invisible man, and machines much smarter than mankind. My constant question was: what if…?

At that time all the adults I consulted either scoffed at such nonsense or went to great lengths to explain all these things were fundamentally impossible.

But little did they know that plans for the first nuclear sub were being hatched the year I was born and an actual Nautilus set sail in 1954 just eight years later, followed by the deployment of the first Polaris boats in the early 1960s.

So how about X-ray vision? Well, the arrival of microelectronics and infrared-sensitive cameras soon made the impossible possible. And as for the invisible man, it looks as though optical cloaking devices are increasingly in prospect and it is only a matter of time before we crack that technology too.

And so to the thorny topic of machines being smarter than us. I can remember the reaction: machines will never play chess; they will never beat a human; they will never beat a good player; they will never beat a grand master; all followed by - they don't play as we do.

A little later the outright denials mutated into - machines will never play poker. That one didn't hold water very long either and last year machines started to trounce professional players at the card table too.

The most interesting point is that we really ought to value people and machines for the different ways they think. These differences can not only enrich our lives today but will probably also secure our futures.

The different nature of machines ought not to enrage us. It should fill us with enquiry, and questions like: what if… and how do we use this new talent?

To date we have seen task-specific machines outstrip our abilities at everything from numeric calculation, controlling an elevator, landing a plane, tuning a car engine in motion, assembling cameras and computers and decoding the genome.

But of course, we couldn't possibly build a universe of task-specific machines to cover and compete in everything that we have done and will do as a species. So should that make us feel complacent and comfortable, does it mean that we will be able to hold onto every niche of problem solving and creativity? I think not.

Sooner or later - and I suspect it will be sooner - a general-purpose machine will emerge that will adapt to do all these things and more. And I think the journey will really begin when we move from web 2.0 to web 3.0 and beyond.

The challenge really is not how the machines are going to adapt to us, or us to them, but how we are going to find a synergy of existence so we can get the maximum benefit for all sides of the equation.

The biggest engineering challenge isn't how you build such a machine, because it will probably build and configure itself, but how we get mankind to think differently in the same time-frame.

All the evidence to date is that humans and their societies change very slowly, while machines move far faster. The only certainty is this will present the kind of challenge that inspired one small boy a long time ago.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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