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Robots are the new masters of the financial universe

We have a headstart of a couple of decades before the science evolves from fiction to reality. That’s an opportunity to use intelligence, human, perhaps humane, rather than artificial, to make things work

columns Updated: Apr 14, 2017 13:28 IST
IIT Madras

Stephen Hawking told the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Tesla founder Elon Musk and Microsoft’s Bill Gates are also anxious.(REUTERS)

Sally makes salads. Sally is green-and-brown and weighs about 350 pounds. Sally is a robot from Chowbotics, founded by IIT-Madras alum Deepak Sekar. Bloomberg recently reported that Sally’s origin lies in a robot that prepped ingredients for a homemade Indian meal. Sally is among the robots setting the table for a revolution in robotics that’s imminent.

This, of course, is just the appetiser of what the mechanical evolution will mean, especially when the garnishing of artificial intelligence (AI) is added to the menu. Some are hungering for more; others may not think what’s served up next as palatable.

Either way, there will be plenty of moving parts to the age of the machines.

Among those examining this near future is Vivek Wadhwa, former entrepreneur, egghead and tech evangelist. Wadhwa is also the author (with Mozilla senior executive Alex Salkever) of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How our Technology Choices will Create the Future.

There are two science fiction scenarios that await us: As Wadhwa argues, either a Star Trek utopia or the dystopian world of Mad Max. He delves into depths of tech next, from the autonomous vehicles of the title, to 3D printing, a power surge caused by energy that’s no longer alternative, bionics, genomics, drones, and of course, robots and AI.

Those last two, taken with the advances in sheer brute computing power, make for the perfect storm for a new age of technology. As Wadhwa points out, “the rate at which computers are advancing, the iPhone 11 or 12 will have greater computing power than our brains do.” AI that goes beyond narrow applications, is only about a decade away, and the coming Siris on steroids may be systems that will “synthesize inputs to arrive at something resembling original works or to solve unstructured problems without benefit of specific rules or guidance.”

Many dread that future. Among them is Stephen Hawking, who told the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Tesla founder Elon Musk and Microsoft’s Bill Gates are anxious, while Tim Berners-Lee, who created the world wide web, believes machines could become the new “masters” of the financial universe.

These developments will certainly also deepen the angst of many, buttressing the numbers of those who have caused recent political upheavals searching for retreat into the past. But the future is inexorable. We may be heading into a science fiction destiny, but one device that they may covet isn’t in the works — the time machine.

But we have been here before, as Wadhwa points out, “The oldest technology of all is probably fire, even older than the stone tools that our ancestors invented. It could cook meat and provide warmth; and it could burn down forests.” Those flames were licked and a dystopian wildfire doesn’t have to consume us.

Even the smartest machines can’t deal with simple human tasks like folding laundry, climbing a ladder or opening a door, as Wadhwa writes, “That is because robots struggle to perform tasks — even tasks that humans take for granted — that are without explicit rules.”

Rules could actually regulate the future. Among those that could be borrowed could be from the late grandmaster of sci-fi Isaac Asimov, and his three laws of robotics, the first of which states: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Wadhwa informs: “The tech luminaries who are developing AI systems are devising things such as kill switches and discussing ethical guidelines.”

There’s plenty of promise ahead — in the fields of education, medicine, food production, potable water availability. One of the problems that will have to be overcome is that of political gridlock, perhaps one reason a quarter of those surveyed by the firm OpenText in Britain recently believed robots “would make better decisions than their elected representatives.”

We have a headstart of a couple of decades before the science evolves from fiction to reality. That’s an opportunity to use intelligence, human, perhaps humane, rather than artificial, to make things work.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal