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November 27, 2012

Is Your Technology Killing You, Or Just Planning To?

By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer

While some believe that the rise of machines is the stuff of science fiction, there are those who believe that it's only a matter of time before machines reach such a level that they decide that humans are unnecessary, or perhaps even dangerous. That's why Cambridge University is proposing a closer look at the concept of intelligent machines by launching the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, which will more closely investigate the rise of the machines, and whether such a rise may prove dangerous to humans.

The primary point that the proposed Center for the Study of Existential Risk would examine is not so much the rise of technology, but rather its impact on the human condition. Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price, for example, believes that, either in this century or the next, the concept of artificial intelligence will elevate beyond the conceptual level and be put into practice. Thinking machines, backed by the power of the Internet and all the information contained therein, would then be the "smartest things around", according to Price, and from there pose a risk to humanity.

The risk Price posits is not one of malevolence, but rather one of neglect, in which the newest "smartest things around" decide that humans are obsolete, that the future need not include these things that have such potential for advancement and destruction in one package. Naturally, Price is facing something of an uphill battle, trying to get funding to study the effects of machines that won't exist for another 100 years or longer, but the dire warnings Price is sounding makes it worth considering. Sufficiently worthwhile, that Cambridge intends to launch the center next year, in fact.

Price elaborates, "It tends to be regarded as a flakey concern, but given that we don't know how serious the risks are, that we don't know the time scale, dismissing the concerns is dangerous. What we're trying to do is to push it forward in the respectable scientific community."

Indeed, it's not hard to call Price's concerns "flakey". After all, everything Price posits, for good or bad, will not actually occur until virtually everyone capable of reading this article is dead, including Price himself. He's projecting technology around a century or two out; he has no way of knowing if there will be a functional human race at that point, let alone whether it will advance to the point where it can develop sentient machines. Virtually all of Price's concerns hinge on that one critical point: that technology advances to the point where artificial intelligences are not only created, but put into sufficiently wide use that they can begin to make decisions about resource allocation, and do so to the detriment of humanity.

Still, Price has one critical point to make: while his projections are a long shot on the other side of decades, even centuries, should they come around, we'll want to know what to do to survive as a species. Perhaps for that reason alone, the Center for the Study of Existential Risk may not be such a bad idea after all.

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