Ensuring IT does not become a Frankenstein

If robots divide us, they will conquer

Wed, Feb 5, 2014, 10:10

With one rub of his lamp, Aladdin could command an intelligent being able to fulfil all desires. His genie was a spirit. But the dream of powerful and intelligent artificial servants has also encompassed physical beings. Now, it is becoming a reality built of silicon, metal and plastic. But is it a dream or a nightmare? Will clever machines prove beneficial? Or will they be Frankenstein monsters?

This is the question raised by The Second Machine Age, a new book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This predicts that we will experience “two of the most amazing events in human history: the creation of true machine intelligence and the connection of all humans via a common digital network, transforming the planet’s economics.

“Innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, tinkerers, and many other types of geeks will take advantage of this cornucopia to build technologies that astonish us, delight us and work for us.”

What distinguishes the second machine age from the first is intelligence. The machines of the first age replaced and multiplied the labour of humans and animals. The machines of the second age will replace and multiply our intelligence.

The driving force behind this revolution is, argue the authors, the exponential increase in the power (or fall in the cost) of computing. The celebrated example is Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel. For half a century, the number of transistors on a semiconductor chip has doubled at least every two years. Similar progress has occurred elsewhere.

The authors argue that after half a century of progress we are seeing leaps in machine intelligence. As computing power grows exponentially, computers are managing tasks deemed beyond reach a few years ago. Soon, they predict, machine intelligence will be everywhere.

They offer as a parallel the story of the inventor of chess who asked to be rewarded with one grain of rice on the first square of his board, two on the second, four on the third and so forth. Manageable on the first half of the board, the reward reaches mountainous proportions on the second. Our reward will grow similarly.

Technology overhyped?
Yet, to paraphrase a celebrated 1987 quip about computers by Robert Solow, a Nobel-laureate MIT economist, we see information technology everywhere except in the productivity statistics. Trends in output per hour in the US are quite mediocre. Indeed, after an encouraging surge in the 1990s and early 2000s, growth has subsided again. Recent performance in other big, high-income economies is worse. One explanation is the impact of technologies is overhyped.

Not surprisingly, the authors disagree. Indeed, they argue that far from being exhausted, the possibilities are boundless: “digitisation makes available massive bodies of data relevant to almost any situation, and this information can be infinitely reproduced and reused”.

If so, why are measured increases in output so modest? The answers offered are: the plethora of cheap or free services (Skype or Wikipedia); the scale of do-it-yourself entertainment (Facebook); and the failure to account fully for all the new products or services.

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