At the recent Tedx Macquarie University event, Ben Ross, the UX Lead and Product Manager at MYOB, gave a talk on the rapid rise of technology and how it could perhaps present a very real challenge for humans as soon as the year 2060.
Ross began his talk by telling everybody in the audience that he could tell them how they were going to die, because statistically the odds are it will most likely be from one of the following conditions:
- Heart Attack
- Dementia and Alzheimers Disease
- Lung Cancer
- Other Cancers
- Heart Failure
Out of these top ten leading causes of death, the only ones we can’t prevent or whose development we have no way to stop are Dementia and Alzheimers, diseases that deteriorate your brain. In fact, one in every four Australians over the age of 85 have the disease and in the United States someone is diagnosed with it every 67 seconds.
Ross, who has a personal connection with the disease due to close family members suffering from it, gave a talk on how those with a proclivity to the disease only really have one option: to rely on technology to come up with a way to help the condition. Indeed, if a cure for the disease is going to be found it will definitely be within this lifetime and that is due to the rate at which technology is advancing.
The advantage of technology advancing is that we can solve massive issues, whether they be health or social advances that help us live longer as a community. But Ross says there is a challenge that rarely is spoken about when it comes to technology advancement, a whole new issue that we as humans should be aware of – computers will eventually become smarter than us humans.
This is often called a human level of artificial intelligence, and post this milestone, when computers exceed similar intelligence to us and can perform better than the human race in all sorts of ways, it is called super intelligence. In talking about super intelligence Ross refers to a famous Stephen Hawking quote about the subject; Hawking said, “It will be the last invention we’ll ever make and the last challenge we’ll ever face.”
We have always believed that as humans we have pretty sophisticated brains, and that replicating the way the brain works would be a difficult, almost near impossible task. After all, it does sound like the stuff of science fiction. But experts have already identified a very clear path of how we are going to get there. Ross says that it comes down to two main factors: advances in hardware and advances in software.
According to a prediction made by Gordon Moore in the 1960s, every year computing power will double – that has certainly held true for the last 50 years. The impact of that is that now, as a society, we all hold more computing power in our hands via our smartphones than the famous super computer of the 1980s called Deep Blue. As the power of software also doubles each year, it is in turn helping hardware to become more powerful. It is even becoming hard these days to tell the difference between computer animated images and real life video images, the lines are already starting to blur.
This means we are already fast approaching a human level of artificial intelligence, and it is happening faster than anyone expects. Ross says that this is because humans have been conditioned to think linearly, so if we take 30 steps we get to 30 steps. However if you take 30 steps exponentially, it is like doubling each step and you rapidly reach a billion. In simpler terms Moore’s law is telling us that technology is doubling every 12 months which means that technology is growing at an exponential rate. Therefore we are on an exponential curve where in a short amount of time computer intelligence will indeed take over human intelligence.
Predictions by experts indicate that humans and computers will have equal intelligence by the year 2040 and that somewhere around 2060 those computers will then reach a level of super intelligence.
It is hard to to digest the fact that eventually a computer will be smarter than the human brain. It is almost incomprehensible to think that one day the brain will be seen as some kind of low powered, low memory, retro computer system like Deep Blue is today. As Ross says though, the human brain doesn’t stand much of a chance.
“If you think about it, the human brain doesn’t stand much of a chance,” says Ross. “The brain is stuck in our head, it is in a physical container and it is difficult to expand the size of it. A computer can have memory added to it, be upgraded, and can easily reproduce another computer.”
Ross says that the most powerful aspect of a computer that the human brain can not compete against is a concept called collective intelligence. This is where you string a bunch of computers together, and where even just a little bit of information that is stored in a desolate corner of the computer network can be scanned and shared across the entire network in seconds – it is instant collaboration. No matter how connected we are to each other as humans, we will never achieve the ability to do that.
So this raises the question that Ross posed to his Tedx audience, the question around our biggest challenge: do computers represent an existential threat to the human race?
Right now that question may seem a little bit “post apocalyptic” and dramatic but we are already seeing the way technology has been able to disrupt industries that have been around for hundreds of years. Take MYOB for example – already the system is reaching a stage that requires little to no human interaction in order to balance the books for a company, invoice clients, and identify the financial strengths and weaknesses of a business. Imagine what the platform could be doing in five or ten years time.