SciTech

Do robots own your future?

The back of the two-seater prototype of Google’s self-driving car at Google in Mountain View, Calif.
The back of the two-seater prototype of Google’s self-driving car at Google in Mountain View, Calif. TNS

Maybe it won’t happen in 2016, but Marshall Brain says we’re not far from a time when a second intelligent species will rule over human intelligence. An NC State professor, father of four and founder of the website HowStuffWorks, Brain is a well-known writer, speaker and consultant who has appeared on many national TV shows to discuss his views on technology and its increasingly dominant role in our lives. His latest book is 2015’s “The Second Intelligent Species: How Humans Will Become as Irrelevant as Cockroaches.”

Q: Exactly how will humans become so diminished due to a second intelligent species spawned by technology?

A: Artificial intelligence is advancing rapidly on many fronts. Self-driving cars are nearly here. The Watson machine has beaten the best human “Jeopardy!” players. Eventually, humanity will be introduced to an artificially intelligent being that puts all these fronts together and is equal to human intelligence. This second intelligent species will rapidly become twice as capable as human intelligence, then four times, and so on. It will eventually reach a state where it looks back at its human creators in the same way humans look at insects.

Q: How soon?

A: The human brain is thought to work at a rate of a quadrillion operations per second. In 20 to 30 years, we should be able to buy desktop machines with that kind of processing power. Combine that sort of processing power with new algorithms on the horizon, and the second intelligent species will arrive soon enough. The next big breakthrough we may see is more and more intelligent AI assistants, and then generalized computer vision.

Q: One of your premises is that our automation obsession will result in millions of newly unemployed workers. Don’t you think this will create a backlash?

A: Let’s take big-rig truck drivers in the United States as an example. There are about 1.5 million of them, and they cost the economy more than $100 billion per year, or about $1,000 per U.S. household. Self-driving trucks will soon arrive, and all of these truck drivers will lose their jobs. Society will be happy because the price of everything will fall.

Q: Still, many find these projections unsettling. How do we convince people that technology isn’t something to fear?

A: Technology is great, not something to fear. … Once robots are doing all the work, humanity should be able to go on perpetual vacation. However, the way the economy is structured right now, all of the new wealth from robotic labor goes to the billionaires, instead of to society as a whole. We need to fear the greed of billionaires – the top 0.1 percent. This is why the title of my next book is, “It is Time to Kill the Billionaire.”

Q. In your capacity of teaching entrepreneurship at N.C. State, how do see your projections about technology specifically affecting the marketplace in the state?

A: It is a great time to be creating companies that leverage automation, that take advantage of exponential change, that spread via social media. It is a great time to be an entrepreneur because there are so many new technologies, and the Internet has become so ubiquitous. However, North Carolina is just like the rest. ... (Robotic companies) will unemploy millions of people.

Q. Which projects do you have for 2016?

A: I love working with student entrepreneurs, as well as entrepreneurs in the community, through my role at N.C. State. I am also working with Dr. Seth Hollar to create a new transportation system for NCSU. See http://ecoPRT.com for details. I am always writing, and am working on several books. But robots and automation will take over universities one day, too.

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