Maureen Dowd: Silicon Valley's rampaging robots

New York TimesJuly 9, 2014 

Mostly, this July, I'm worrying about the jumping sharks jumping the shark.

But Syfy's "Sharknado 2" trailer, this one about a shark storm hitting Manhattan, just went up and features chain saws buzzing, the Statue of Liberty's severed head whizzing, Tara Reid kvetching and Robert Klein barking, "This is the Big Apple! Something bites us; we bite back!"

So things look pretty promising. That leaves me free to worry about rampaging robots. And I'm not the only one.

In a recent interview with CNBC, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and Space X, which hopes to rocket us to other planets, said he invests in artificial intelligence (AI) companies not to make money but to "keep an eye" on them in case of "scary outcomes," like a "Terminator" scenario of psychopathic robots that could chase us off the Earth and up to Mars.

In "Terminator," Musk said, the humans who created the replicants did not expect the machines to turn evil: "It is sort of like that Monty Python thing — nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, but you've got to be careful."

Silicon Valley brains have been predicting that robots will usher in a radically superior world.

Ray Kurzweil, Google's 66-year-old director of engineering, is running a Manhattan Project to push AI to match human intelligence by 2029 and achieve his vision of "the singularity" — the moment when computers overtake human brains — by 2045.

The robots will even be able to flirt, he says, and, unlike Siri and Scarlett Johansson in "Her," they can easily have a curvy virtual form and be "lovable."

Computers will be able to read every word on the Internet and every book ever written and offer up matching patterns.

IBM's Watson has read 200 million Wikipedia pages, Kurzweil told The Observer of London, but "it doesn't understand that if John sold his red Volvo to Mary that involves a transaction or possession and ownership being transferred."

So Kurzweil and Google will try to encode that information to "really try to teach it to understand the meaning of what these documents are saying."

Because I come from a family of Irish maids, I'm not looking forward to servitude under my iPhone.

And Kurzweil should be more worried that he'll suffer the fate of genetic designer J.F. Sebastian in "Blade Runner." He is killed by his replicants after telling them, "There's a part of me in you."

Vinod Khosla, the Sun Microsystems co-founder, has predicted that algorithms and machines will replace 80% of doctors in years to come, making medicine more data driven and less like "witchcraft."

In a rare joint interview last week with Khosla at his Silicon Valley summit, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page talked about their AI hopes.

Said Brin: "You should presume that someday we will be able to make machines that can reason, think and do things better than we can."

They have always been interested in robots — they named their operating system Android — and are running "the brain project," described by Brin as "really machine-learning focused." In January, they acquired the British AI developer DeepMind, co-founded by Demis Hassabis, a game designer, neuroscientist and former child chess prodigy.

Jaron Lanier is a computer genius and author of "Who Owns the Future?" He dryly notes that our looming overlords may not be robots but the Google founders: "The only person with a secure job will be Larry Page. He owns the damn cloud computer."

Despite a fantasy that dates from the mid-20th century, Lanier said that nobody has yet figured out how to make a robot that can think for itself.

"In a way, it's not being honest," he said. "We're still pretending that we're inventing a brain when all we've come up with is a giant mashup of real brains. We don't yet understand how brains work so we can't build one."

When machines translate from one language to another, they are leeching from live translators, taking matching phrases from aggregated data. If tech companies could gather similar data on doctors, that information could theoretically be matched up to make a simulated doctor.

"People are unwittingly feeding information into the cloud for automated services, which they're not being paid for," Lanier said. "I don't like pretending that humans are becoming buggy whips. You have this fantasy that it's machines doing it without people helping. We are throwing people out of work based on a fantasy."

In a digital update of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," Silicon Valley is siphoning and pilfering human intelligence to feed Mr. Roboto to replace us. That's the scary bravado of real sharks.


Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

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