Opinion / 25 August 2019, 12:28pm / Bilal Kathrada
When was the last time you left home without your mobile phone?
These days, we have become so attached to our gadgets that life without them is inconceivable. Yet a mere three decades ago, they did not exist. Over the past three decades mobile devices have slowly crept into our lives and have now become an integral part of them.
Why is this so? What is our attachment to these gadgets? Why is it that we cannot imagine a life without them? What is it about cellphones that shifted them from luxury items that only a select few could afford, to an everyday “must have” item for people of all ages and backgrounds.
The answer lies in their immense capabilities. We use our gadgets for connecting, communicating, learning, sharing and entertainment. Through them, we have brought the power of the internet to our fingertips.
In a way, they have become an extension of our minds, augmenting our intelligence, arguably making us better versions of ourselves. And in recent times, thanks to artificial intelligence, they have become far more capable, in the process making us more capable.
Nonetheless, our gadgets still have one major limitation: the way we interact with them.
By and large, we still need to use our hands to control them, and this is a slow and clunky way to do so. Worse still, it requires us to take our eyes off our current task and focus on the device itself.
In recent times, voice commands have been a huge step forward, but even that has its limitations. As adept as devices have become at understanding what we say, they still have a long way to go. Plus, speaking out instructions may be faster than typing them, but it is still much, much slower than thinking them.
Imagine if we could eliminate the intermediary agents like the need to use our hands and speech, and control devices using just thought, and at the speed of thought. Imagine if we could do online searches, perform complex calculations, communicate with others, and control all kinds of devices, just by thinking. This would be nothing short of transformational.
Of course, there are a number of concerns around exactly how this will happen, but if we can move past those concerns, and their ramifications, and just focus on the concept itself, we will realise that this would be a major game changer and a monumental breakthrough, not just in technology, but in the capabilities of human beings.
We would have the best of both worlds: human, and computer. By combining the natural qualities of humans, such as intuition, emotion and empathy, with the ability of computers to process information, we would be almost superhuman in our abilities, with Jedi-like mind-control powers.
This convergence of humans and machines may seem like science fiction now, but according to AI expert, author and futurist Ray Kurzweil, this phenomenon, which he calls “the singularity”, will become a reality within two decades.
Kurzweil, the author of the New York Times best-selling book The Singularity is Near, is not to be taken lightly. Besides being a formidable figure in the tech industry, he is also well known for his uncanny ability to correctly predict future technology trends.
For example, in his 1990 book entitled, The Age of Intelligent Machine, he predicted that a computer would beat a human chess player by the year 2000. His prediction came true when IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997, three years earlier than predicted.
Regarding the singularity, Kurweil predicts that by the late 2030s artificial intelligence will match human intelligence, and from that point AI will continue progressing until it becomes smarter than humans.
At that point, according to him, we will merge with computers.
“That leads to computers having human intelligence, our putting them inside our brains, connecting them to the cloud, expanding who we are. Today, that’s not just a future scenario,” Kurzweil said at a recent conference. “It’s here, in part, and it’s going to accelerate.”
Kurzweil’s prediction is consistent with recent technological advancements, such as the rapid progress of artificial intelligence and Elon Musk’s announcement about Neuralink, a company that will plant chips in human brains, allowing people to communicate with devices just by thinking.
In view of these, there is no doubt that it will happen, and soon.
The question remains - should we be afraid of the singularity? Kurweil does not think so. He believes that in reality the singularity will be nothing like its portrayal by science fiction, where super-powerful AI enslaves the human race.
For him, the singularity will simply be the culmination of the existing relationship we have with technology. The next logical step, in his view, is to give ourselves the ability to communicate with them directly from our minds, to go from hand control, to voice control, to mind control.
“What’s actually happening is machines are powering all of us. They’re making us smarter,” he says.
* 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.