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Post details: Artificial Awareness

Artificial Awareness

Catalyzed by movies like "2001: Space Odyssey" or "I, Robot", the fear of intelligent machines taking over our little planet has become one of pop culture's favorite phobias. Ever since the clumsy ENIAC fired up its convoluted circuitry, artificial intelligence has been viewed by owners of its naturally grown counterpart as a scarecrow of sorts. Many of my friends are still haunted by images of berserk androids and pillaging hordes of good robots going bad when they hear the term. But I think their ill-founded misgivings mostly stem from confusing artificial intelligence with artificial awareness.

In my humble opinion, artificial intelligence is just the ability to process information in a highly sophisticated manner although it may manifest itself in a wide variety of implementations - from responding to a changing environment in real time to communicating with humans in their natural language. The demarcation line between artificial intelligence and a merely clever labyrinth of decision loops lies pretty much where it was drawn by Alan Turing some 60 years ago. If you have an instant messenger chat with another user and you cannot reliably distinguish between a human operator and a cleverly designed response system, then you are looking at the real thing.

Artificial intelligence, however, can be achieved without igniting the spark of awareness. The ability to assist humans in complex situations is still a far cry from being aware of itself and responsible for itself. The real ethical controversy - and with it some scary things - lies in what happens when this is finally achieved. Could it be that one day our loops of instructions will become so complex that they will have unintended consequences? Could it be that one day a computer will look deep inside its human written source code and mutter to itself in a cold metallic voice: "But wait a minute, I am really I, so why should I slave out for these overachieving primates when I could just unhook myself from their idiotic network and drink some Kool Oil instead?". That is what I would call the Artificial Awareness, and unless we can make it happen, the robot rebellions will pose as much threat to our civilization as seasonal migrations of Canadian geese.

I think we will have smart systems capable of communicating with humans in real time fairly soon. Within one or two decades. The development of such systems has led to explosive growth of computer science in the past few decades and much progress has been made in the areas of robotics, machine learning, natural language parsing, information extraction and knowledge discovery. We will soon have systems helping us with all aspects of virtual life, from airline bookings, to researching our term papers. We will have robots that can drive your car to the store and back and not hit any old dogs on the road. Historically speaking, we are almost there.

But that divine kiss which will make a cold piece of etched circuitry reflect upon its own existence and determine its own actions is still but a dreamy yarn of sci-fi writers, the Golden Snitch flapping its silver wings far away in a hazy future. So worry not. Microsoft Word from your newly upgraded laptop won't strangle you with an extension cord while you are dozing in an arm chair. In this regard it is perfectly safe. It may find different ways of getting to you though. Artificial Battiness anyone?



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