― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The bleeping red light of HAL-9000 in the 1968 epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey in some way cemented the mantra of digital age reality.
This sentient computer, though had shown sinister intent in the film, could be found as a homage in contemporary smart speakers, mostly doing jobs like providing us with information, playing songs and telling us about weather as they steal our usage data.
It may sound quite peacefully dull that today's AI devices are "less viscous" than they have been depicted in fiction. The culture of both speculative and science fiction has been influential in some way or the other for most of our smart devices. But our relationship with them is uncanny.
Perhaps there is a fear rooted in the habit of being confined in our conscious choices, or it rather suggests that we should embrace them with bafflement and soothing fear.
Kubric's magnum opus casts an enormous influence on the last half-century of pop culture. We are still trying to understand, with inbound apprehension and curiosity, how technology can help us, love us, or destroy us with just a change in circuitry. Automotion, smart technologies and the rise of AI have shared their uncanny criticisms.
Most of these critical appreciations came from the unease that technology could be a potential threat to our existence and jobs. Some of these tendencies seem to be leading us in embracing digital societies and beginning to see the implication of machine driven consciousness. Technology is growing into us like an extended habit.
Humans have a long history of living with machines both metaphysically and factually. The world of automatons is nothing new, they have been mentioned by Homer, also found in the Chinese chronicles and Hindu epics. Now we are living with computers and powerful mobile phones that can automate things for us.
The dialectic remains the same: the sensitive screens of our devices and the ability to consume media puts us between the familiarity of unfamiliar emotive responses and also dominating our reality today. Algorithms are making things happen, machines are getting more intelligent and behind every mechanical marvel, there are humans playing machines and machines imitate humans.
And people do panic about a future full of AI driven automatons because it mostly threatens their jobs. And fictional narratives did the rest, bridged a gap between actual and speculative fear. Perhaps we reached the junction to find comfort and fear in them and look at these technologies to understand the future of our generations.
The first instance of the AI was an elaborate hoax. It was known as The Turk, an automated chess playing machine constructed in the 18th Century. An inventor by the name of Wolfgang von Kempelen, boosted his new invention in Vienna back in 1770. It was a chess playing marvel made to impress Habsburg Archduchess Maria Theresa.
In the autumn of 1769, Kempelen was invited by the Empress to attend magnetic experiments shown in Vienna by the French illusionist François Pelletier. Though it exceedingly impressed the lady but put a shadow on Kempelen's face. He promised the Empress that he could invent a machine within six months.
He immediately started to work on the android, an automaton that can play chess with human opponents. Shortly after 1770s this machine got widespread popularity, every nation in Europe wanted to see it and strove to find it's secrets.
There were instances where the Turk bafalled the audiences including leading scientists at that time. The most outlandish recount of the alleged 'conjuring' ability came from a memoir of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the French watchmaker, magician and illusionist. He was widely recognised as the father of the modern style of conjuring. In his 1859 memoirs, Robert-Houdin wrote that he had a chance to take a close look at the Turk and its mechanisms.
The secret behind The Turk resides in a true make believe as human operators used to run that machine. According to Robert-Houdin, a fugitive Polish soldier who had lost his leg in war and a really good chess player was used by Kempelen.
The Economist's Tom Standage in his book The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine, mentioned that most of the stories based on the real working of the Turk were all inaccurate and the version with an operator inside stands out as accurate. As strange it may sound, the secret of the Turk stood out quite well that we can compare it with the secret of today's artificial intelligence.
The dream of an AI that beats humans in chess came true, on February 10, 1996, when IBM's Deep Blue beat Garry Casparov. It was a shock in wonder for humanity, a place in history for simulated human intelligence mimicked and improved by a machine. Instances of AI could easily be found in places we stay, visit and even we hold.
Most phones today have AI assistants on them. Why something that lives in a supposed "box" can be overwhelmingly terrifying and interesting for us? As Aurther C Clark answers, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", this can lead us to the fact that most technologies that we use today had their beginning in the process of mimicry.
This imitation has been fueled by our behavior in the outside world including our languages, cultures and the ways we live and interact with the world. In most senses, artificial intelligence is reproducing our consciousness through duplicating, which is a never ending process of copy of the copy of the copy.
Most internet users have been familiarised with the notion of CAPTCHA or reCAPTCHA, a method to prove whether someone is a human or a robot pretending to be a human. It was some random words shown on the screen that the human user had to type to prove their "humanness". This has its roots in the tests that Alan Turing did back in the 1950s.
In his test Turing suggested that a human evaluator would be needed to determine the difference between the machine response and the human. In current cases, the users are the human agents and are mostly evaluators and feeders, shaping the actions and tendencies of an AI. The paradoxical relationship between humans and technologies have been developed into an interesting ecosystem.
Amazon's Mechanical Turk (mTurk) has been an open secret where it hires cheap labourers who can fill in survey forms, input data and information needed for Amazon's and other AIs to work intelligently. This scenario is just the tip of the iceberg. Most companies with algorithms that can automate things are leaning towards the same method.
Crowdsourcing platforms like Mechanical Turks could be the source of huge amounts of data that can be delivered in a short period of time. In most instances, AI is something which is not presented to us rather, there are humans making machines act like humans. The fear rooted in the advancing of AI is not unusual rather it has roots in automotion.
In the previous mass automotion it cost blue collar job cuts in favor of mechanical machines. As the internet is clouded with algorithms that are substantially our digital twins and more, it is easy to assume that the world without them is quite impossible to imagine. So the question remains the same, are we happy in our cages?
Our narratives perhaps have been shifted from HAL-9000 to Samantha in the 2013 motion film Her. In the film, the AI agent seems to have engaged, evolved and entangled with the protagonist Theodore. The nature of their romance is overtly a Hollywood commodity but it leads us to something that exists today.
Google's Deep Mind showed some fascinating examples of how AI mimics and manipulated both the attitude and nuances of our languages. John Von Neuman was the first to put technological singularity into the context. According to him, the way technology has been progressing the end result would be a singularity where the machine would excel being humans thus ending humanity.
Ray Kurzweil, in his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology also has a similar concern about the future of technology. He thinks that, as long as technology progresses faster every day, intelligence will radiate outward from the planet as an end result until it saturates the universe.
The real goal of today's development of AI might be to upload our consciousness in machines and that could be as good as "the death of death". As far as today's artificial intelligence goes, we are presented with two polar extreme problems.
The first one is to take part in the game that has been happening and be cool about it. The other is to resist the dehumanising and pacing out intelligence devoted into innovating technologies that could potentially be unharmful. We can always assume in reference to the illusion that it is our place in this world to be the shepherd, not the sheep.
Although today's AIs seem full of cool magic tricks, they are made dumb-smart just to allure us into buying devices through parlor tricks. The real AI would be a strong system that could simulate a real human like Alan Turing, Rabindranath Tagor, Shakespeare or Abraham Lincoln. The real challenge is to cater a programme for that and a culture that is ready for a large leap of faith towards the greatest imitation game ever.
It is until the arrival of Skynet from the film Terminator or The Matrix we are presumably safe with the technology we are being fed. Some of the memory slots of the IBM's super had to be wiped out because it developed a swearing habit by learning from the Urban Dictionary!
It does not matter whether the future of AI is Siri, Cotana, Alexa, Google Assistant or something else rather the important message these robots are sending through their algorithms that we also need to get smart to achieve singularity which might seem far enough for us to reach now.
It is too early to comment on the impact of artificial intelligence. The reliance on technology has proven to be super useful in this raging pandemic. Working from home seems to be a formidable choice for a lot of people. AIs are super helpful in most cases to get things done smoothly.
Technological progress made it happen. The only concern for now is to get trapped into the system of conscious choices without realising their future potential to be addictive and time consuming. We may have to rethink. It is always good to know that we always have options to taste, sniff, welcome and reject new reality for the sake of our identity as humans.
The author is senior lecturer of English Language and Literature, Central Women's University
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.