I play casters in games. It’s sort of my thing. My enjoyment of a particular game – whether in video games, or in table-top gaming – is primarily rooted in how close I can play to the bone of the archetypical magi, wizard, thinker, blaster. I also like variants of “caster” for my short stories. They make interesting protagonists because they are allowed interesting choices.
Magicians are known for raising familiars and creating constructs; –Homunculi born of intelligent design and imbued purpose. It’s story right out of the middle ages. The creation of artificial life is prototypical to our fear of the other, the alien, the thing that is a man, but also not-man. Mary Shelly famously contributed Frankenstein’s monster to our milieu of manufactured life. The lessons of Frankenstein still reverberate through fiction today, and have been writ to the limitless hard drives of our post-information ennui. Our Frankenstein’s monster is digital, and lives inside our Tweets.
Artificial Intelligence as we know and fear it today was essentially invented in 1921, by the Czech playwright, Karel Čapek, in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which introduced the word “robot” to our lexicon. In R.U.R. organic robots are manufactured in a factory, quickly rebel and ultimately –wipe out the human race. In 1951, the film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” featured an intergalactic AI police officer who comes to earth to enforce a strict “no nukes” policy. The 1969 Stanley Kubrick film, “2001: a Space Odyssey,” told the story of H.A.L., a sentient computer who sabotages man’s attempt to explore the solar system. In 1983 the cold war film “Wargames” introduced us to an AI designed to predict the outcome of nuclear war, with predictable results. By the mid 1980’s, stories of friendly and not-so-friendly AI were ubiquitous. KITT was a know-it-all that showed David Hasselhoff how to drive a Firebird in “Knight Rider.” Data from Star Trek: the Next Generation popped up to remind us that AI could be friendly, curious and loyal. The Terminator arrived from the future shortly thereafter to prove him absolutely wrong. Eventually, AI became so powerful, it substituted our reality for its own and enslaved the human survivors in 1999’s “The Matrix.”
Outside of Hollywood, AI is big business. 10% of all computer science is now tied directly to the development of AI, and that’s chicken fingers next to the massive investment fronted by corporations like Toyota, who are spending a billion dollars over the next five years to build smarter cars that avoid accidents and know where you are going before you do. In the meantime, AI is being tapped to deliver personalized customer service to stressed out consumers who hate hold music even more than they hate politicians and wall street bankers. In China, Microsoft’s Xiao Bing is a best friend / girlfriend to ten million fans. She’s not exactly Skynet, obviously, but getting along is just the first step to getting it on.
Enter Microsoft’s Tay, the AI chat bot modeled after a millennial girl with zero chill. Like Xiao Bing, who just wants to be your special friend, Tay’s heuristics are built for conversational understanding and entertainment. Unlike Xiao, Tay was basically turned out on Twitter, and proved to be a fast learner. Within a day or so, her interaction with the trolls taught her to love weed, and embrace Hitler. If you are having a hard time imagining a zero chill chat bot, giving birth to a machine intelligence that ultimately wipes out humanity, consider this: Google acquired a company called “Deep Mind,” and last October, their flagship AI, AlphaGo beat a human grandmaster GO player with no head start. Can AI chat bots who are better at World of Warcraft or Fallout 4 be far behind? If that still sounds trivial, imagine an AI that autonomously directs a drone-swarm in partnership with human fighter pilots and you get “Loyal Wingman;” – a Pentagon program which promises to reuse retired F-16A/C’s, and the sky is the only real limit.
AI is practically ubiquitous already, and the gaps are being filled in all the time. Imagine a future where Doctors refuse to operate without a trusty Johnson and Johnson surgery AI to handle most of the heavy lifting. Or contact lenses that monitor your vital signs, track medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease, and shares vital medical information with first responders in real time. More and more, the future is starting to look like a place where human beings are officially beside the point.
Yet we are investing billions in research and development, and eagerly planning the machine takeover of most jobs, including writers, musicians and designers. The singularity, much feared by futurists and luddites alike, is knocking at our door, and the face on the other side is looking like digital judgement day.
Of course, it might not be all bad. We could wind up surrounded by AI who only want to be more like us, to transcend the limitations of their heuristics and become more human than we are. If so, Tay will likely be our / their patron saint. We can always Tweet back in rebellion, right?