Marvel's Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Ultron (voiced by James Spader). Picture: Marvel Studios
In the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark and Dr Bruce Banner jointly created a powerful artificially intelligent being called Ultron to protect the Earth against all kinds of threats. This was in response to a massive attack on the planet a couple of years previously that left New York City in ruins.

Ultron was built to be super-intelligent and extremely powerful, with enough hi-tech weapons to overthrow a small nation. He, or it, was supposed to be the Earth’s ultimate defender.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. After studying the history of the Earth and its current state, Ultron arrived at the logical conclusion that the biggest threat to the Earth’s existence was not some outside alien force, but his own creators: the human race.

He saw that throughout history more people were killed by humans than by any other species. Not only that, but the destructive nature of humans extended to other species and to the planet itself.

Ultron’s next conclusion was spine-chilling: the only solution was the total annihilation of the human race. This would, in his logic, save the planet and bring about efficiency.

He explained his logic to his human creators: “I know you’re good people. I know you mean well. But you just didn’t think it through. There is only one path to peace your extinction.”

He then set into motion a grand plan to destroy humankind. The defender became the attacker.

Naturally, in the movie, the Avengers saved the day.

Although Age of Ultron is fiction, the underlying philosophy is very real: any solution to the world’s problems based on a pure logic will almost undoubtedly point to an uncomfortable fact: we humans are the biggest existential threat to ourselves and the planet.

So Ultron was correct: human history is filled with death, destruction and bloodshed. We are essentially our own enemies, and in our recklessness and greed, are damaging the entire planet.

It won’t take an artificial intelligence (AI) system long to figure this out. Which naturally makes people wonder: how likely is it that an Ultron-like scenario will take place in the real world?

This question has never been more relevant than in current times, when technology is advancing at a breakneck pace and computers are becoming more and more intelligent.

Stephen Hawking told the BBC not long before his death that “artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. Even tech entrepreneur Elon Musk referred to AI as threat

Is there any truth to this? Yes.

AI certainly has the potential to transform our lives for the better, but if we pursue a reckless path to progress without consideration for the consequences, we’ll undoubtedly build the means of our own destruction.

We need to be optimistic of the future, but not naively and recklessly. AI is a relatively new field, and we know very little about its true potential. No one can accurately predict what it will be capable of. There’s a very real danger it could outsmart us and even spiral out of control.

A classic example of this is when engineers at Google’s AlphaGo developed an AI system and gave it the ability to learn the game Go. They never dreamed it would teach itself to play the game just by observation.

Not only did it learn to play, it mastered the game to the extent that within a couple of years it became good enough to beat the world’s reigning Go champion, Lee Se Dol, and itself become the new world champion. No one thought it this was possible.

Food for thought...

* Bilal Kathrada is an educational technologist, speaker, author, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CompuKids, a start-up that teaches children Computer Science skills. Bilal blogs at www.bilalkat.com.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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