The Nightmare Dream of a Thinking Machine

The question “Can a machine think?” has shadowed computer science from its beginnings. Alan Turing proposed in 1950 that a machine could be taught like a child; John McCarthy, inventor of the programming language LISP, coined the term “artificial intelligence” in 1955. As AI researchers in the 1960s and 1970s began to use computers to recognize images, translate between languages, and understand instructions in normal language and not just code, the idea that computers would eventually develop the ability to speak and think—and thus to do evil—bubbled into mainstream culture. Even beyond the oft-referenced HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1970 movie Colossus: The Forbin Projectfeatured a large blinking mainframe computer that brings the world to the brink of nuclear destruction; a similar theme was explored 13 years later in WarGames. The androids of 1973’s Westworld went crazy and started killing.

When AI research fell far short of its lofty goals, funding dried up to a trickle, beginning long “AI winters.” Even so, the torch of the intelligent machine was carried forth in the 1980s and ’90s by sci-fi authors like Vernor Vinge, who popularized the concept of the singularity; researchers like the roboticist Hans Moravec, an expert in computer vision; and the engineer/entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, author of the 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines. Whereas Turing had posited a humanlike intelligence, Vinge, Moravec, and Kurzweil were thinking bigger: when a computer became capable of independently devising ways to achieve goals, it would very likely be capable of introspection—and thus able to modify its software and make itself more intelligent. In short order, such a computer would be able to design its own hardware.

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You can also find the exact opposite of such sunny optimism. Stephen Hawking has warned that because people would be unable to compete with an advanced AI, it “could spell the end of the human race.” Upon reading Superintelligence, the entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted: “Hope we’re not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable.” Musk then followed with a $10 million grant to the Future of Life Institute. Not to be confused with Bostrom’s center, this is an organization that says it is “working to mitigate existential risks facing humanity,” the ones that could arise “from the development of human-level artificial intelligence.”

Paul Ford writing in MIT Technology Review about our conceptions of artificial intelligence, and why they can scare us.

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