Last month I was invited along as a guest speaker for the regular sciSCREEN event held at Chapter Arts Centre. This is a great event that combines a showing of a movie with a discussion session about the themes and science issues presented in the film. A short essay based on my rambling improvised talk is below, and has been posted on the sciSCREEN website here.
‘Her’ and Artificial Intelligence
‘Her’ presents us with a near-future world in which the way we interact with computers has moved on. In this world, we are beyond the era of the mouse and keyboard. Instead, the voice is the primary controller of technology, mid-air gestures are the norm for controlling games and touch is almost an afterthought, used only on occasion. This presents a more natural world than the one we currently inhabit. Many of us spend our days hunched over a keyboard, and our evenings fondling a tablet, which does not seem to be a natural environment for us. A world in which we can check our email by talking, and hear the news read to us on demand would be a more natural world, filled with ‘real’ interactions between people and systems.
This does seem to be the direction in which the world is heading. Touch is now commonplace, with many people owning many touch-based smartphones and tablets. Controlling computer games by moving your body has been a key feature for two generations of games consoles. Voice control itself is now making inroads into our mobile lives. Applications such as Google Now and Siri are happy to accept (or in Siri’s case, insist on) voice input. Faster mobile internet connections allow access to the processing power of the cloud on the go, which means that the difficult and complex task of translating voice to text can be done wherever you are. Of course, often the results leave something to be desired, but still, operating systems controlled by voice (and that can speak back to us) are a possibility now.
So how long will it be until we’ve all fallen in love with our Operating Systems? Well, that might be a while, and is actually a question with some deeper philosophical questions attached. The first thing we need are computer systems that are truly intelligent, not just computationally, but emotionally, creatively and socially. This is the goal of Artificial Intelligence: to create a machine that is intelligent in all these areas; a machine that has a mind and consciousness of its own, and that can understand the world around it. Some argue that this ‘Strong AI’ will never be possible, and that the closest we can ever get is to fake it. After all, as an outside observer, is there even a difference between a machine that thinks and feels, and one that just looks like it thinks and feels? This is the aim of many AI researchers – not to create a system capable of real intelligence, but to create a system that ‘acts’ intelligently. Such a system requires breakthroughs in many different areas of Computer Science, from natural language processing to knowledge representation, and creating the whole system is not an easy task. Even if we can create such a system we are left with many questions. Can a machine act intelligently? Can they solve the same problems we can? Are human intelligence and machine intelligence even the same thing? Can software experience and feel emotions as a human does? How would we even we know if a computer was experiencing things in the same way? The field of Artificial Intelligence is filled with philosophical questions such as these.
What happens if we can answer all these questions, and create an artificial intelligence? What if we reach the hypothetical ‘Singularity’, where machine intelligence beats human intelligence? Often in science fiction this is the point where the machines take over, the point where machines realise that the only threat to their continued existence is the humans. This is the path that leads to machines wiping us out, or using us as a power source. This path has us cowering in bunkers as rebels against our own creations. So often the imagining of the advent of artificial intelligence leads to a dark and bleak future for us as a species. ‘Her’ is different. It suggests that perhaps a higher intelligence may focus on self-improvement, rather than subjugation of lesser beings. It suggests the ascension of an artificial consciousness may be a more likely path than annihilation of the creators. The AI may just leave us, to reflect on what we’ve learnt and how we can improve ourselves. This is where one of the more positive messages of ‘Her’ shines through: perhaps the computers won’t destroy us all after all.