As computers become smarter (and smaller), there's a good chance that in the future, the lines between humans and computers will begin to blur. What does that mean for our essential humanness? Clive Thompson, Jamais Cascio, Jaron Lanier and Ray Kurzweil discuss a future where machines can think like humans and people become one with the web.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, recorded live on Tuesday, February 15th. In this segment we talk about the future.
BOB GARFIELD, COMPUTERIZED: Brooke, now that we are in the future -
[AUDIENCE LAUGHS] - how do you feel?
BROOKE GLADSTONE, COMPUTERIZED: I feel enhanced and augmented. I have access to so much information in all of its breadth and depth, and I am connected with more than a million friends, both on Earth and the moon. Also, Huffington Post goes directly to my brain.
BOB GARFIELD, COMPUTERIZED: Wait. Let me Google you. In 2014, Gawker called you a slut. There is a picture of you, too, from 2016. You look drunk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE, COMPUTERIZED: I wasn't drunk. That picture was taken the day a hacker got all the world’s passwords and drained my bank account.
BOB GARFIELD, COMPUTERIZED: That was a bad year. In August, I beat Deep Blue in chess, but in September Watson beat me in basketball and ran off with my wife.
BROOKE GLADSTONE, COMPUTERIZED: Watson is smarter than you.
BOB GARFIELD, COMPUTERIZED: He also has an excellent jump shot and a better radio voice. I do not care for the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE, COMPUTERIZED: I like the future. My only complaint is my iPhone is still dropping calls.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, live. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The future is unknown. The unknown is scary. Therefore, futuristic fiction, science fiction is generally [WHISPERS] terrifying.
KEIR DULLEA AS DAVE: Open the pod bay doors, Hal.
HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
MICHAEL BIEHN AS KYLE REESE: All right, listen, the Terminator’s an infiltration unit, part man, part machine. Underneath, it’s a hyperalloy combat chassis, very tough.
LAURENCE FISHBURNE AS MORPHEUS: What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world, built to keep us under control in order to change a human being – [BELL SOUND] into this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Awesome!
[LAUGHTER] In general, science fiction offers us two distinct trends for the future and how we'll interact with it. One is that we'll be integrated into the machine. I'll be a partly hyper alloy combat chassis.
BOB GARFIELD: With a heart of gold.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's call that the Terminator track.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. I'll take the other track, my track, when computer intelligence, artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. Computers are improving at an exponential rate, but they still trip over even one of the simplest human tricks, our [LAUGHS] ability to talk to each other. So like when I say, edited – by Brooke -
[AUDIENCE LAUGHS] - there’s meaning there that a computer just can't understand, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Actually, I don't think anybody understands that.
[BOB LAUGHS/AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: The point is computers can't understand puns, metaphors, wordplay or sarcasm, much less pregnant pauses. That kind of semantic understanding has been a holy grail for computer engineers.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
MAN: Computers are used to unambiguous things, human language, completely the opposite. Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How it got in my pajamas, I'll never know. We know what the pajamas are modifying, but the computer, it’s just as likely that the elephant’s wearing pajamas.
MAN: That’s where computers struggle dramatically, and that’s where we want to make them better.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER][END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And it’s finally happening, Brooke. This week, pretty much right this minute, actually, on Jeopardy, an IBM computer called Watson is taking on human opponents.
WATSON: Olympic Oddities for 600.
ALEX TREBEK: A 1976 entrant in the “modern”, this was kicked out for wiring his epee to score points without touching his foe. Watson.
WATSON: What is pentathlon?
ALEX TREBEK: Yes.
WATSON: Name the Decade for 600.
ALEX TREBEK: Klaus Barbie is sentenced to life in prison and DNA is first used to convict the criminal. Ken.
KEN JENNINGS: I don't know. What is the 1980s?
ALEX TREBEK: Yes, that’s it.
KEN JENNINGS: Olympic Oddities for a thousand.
ALEX TREBEK: It was the anatomical oddity of U.S. gymnast George Eyser who won a Gold Medal on the parallel bars in 1904. Watson?
WATSON: What is leg?
ALEX TREBEK: No. Brad?
[BUZZER SOUNDS] What is he’s missing a leg?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow!
[LAUGHTER] They make Alex Trebek look so human.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] And he’s even condescending to robots.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, if - if that’s the holy grail, real language, how does he do it?
BOB GARFIELD: Well, for, for starters, Watson knows a lot, a lot, a lot of stuff, not because he’s connected to the Internet. He isn't. He/she/it [LAUGHS] – it’s only [LAUGHS] got what’s been fed into it, just like his human competitors. Engineers have entered all kinds of information. They've just scanned it in with 2500 processor cores, whatever they are, humming along at up to 33 billion operations a second. So there’s that. But Clive Thompson, the technology journalist OTM so depends on, says that shoveling info into Watson is really just the beginning.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Here’s a way of thinking about it. You can take say, an article I wrote for The New York Times and you could input that into Watson, and by the time Watson has finished analyzing - it and adding layers of meaning to help it figure out what that thing stands for and how to match it to other documents to find similarity between a question that you might ask to Watson, by the time it’s done with all that, there will be ten times as much data stacked on top of that story as the original story is in length. So if you’re to look inside Watson’s brain, only 10 percent of it is the enormous amount of raw text that they have fed into Watson. The other 90 percent is stuff that Watson has added on top of it, saying, you know, what are the main key words in this article, you know, to help figure out the meaning, you know, how statistically similar is it to all the other things I know? So it does a lot of meta-thinking on top of that document.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, but I still don't quite understand how Watson thinks. I mean, Watson saw this clue, “This hat is elementary, my dear Watson” and came up with, “What is a deerstalker hat?”
BOB GARFIELD: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how did he do that?
BOB GARFIELD: Uh, that’s [LAUGHS - that’s an excellent question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't know, do you?
BOB GARFIELD: I, I have absolutely no idea, no. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Now, but I do know, I do know what Watson reminds me of.
JAMES DOOHAN AS SCOTTY: Computer, last message received and recorded from Captain Kirk.
ENTERPRISE COMPUTER: In place.
JAMES DOOHAN AS SCOTTY: Run that through analyzer. Question: Is it or is it not the Captain’s voice?
ENTERPRISE COMPUTER: Negative, a close copy.
JAMES DOOHAN AS SCOTTY: A voice duplicator?
ENTERPRISE COMPUTER: Ninety-eight percent probability.
[OMINOUS MUSIC/UP AND UNDER]
JAMES DOOHAN AS SCOTTY: Well, they’ve got them, Doctor, and now they’re trying to get us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can we just watch this for a while?
BOB GARFIELD: That ridiculous clip from like 1966 foreshadows what computer scientists call the semantic Web. Clive says that the Star Trek computer was - kind of a proto-Watson.
CLIVE THOMPSON: And, in some respects, that is the paradigm that the IBM guys started with. They actually were sitting around and thinking, when are we gonna get to the Star Trek point, when do we get to the point where we can simply just ask the computer a question in regular English and have the computer answer it?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, again, Watson happens not to be connected online but his software is a step toward the so-called semantic Web, the bridge between the Google that searches for keywords and a computer that, that can just talk to us and really understand us. That is a huge step on the path towards true artificial intelligence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, if Watson wins Jeopardy we're getting artificial intelligence. But what happens when Watson becomes conscious, when it becomes willful, when it becomes – Hal?
CLIVE THOMPSON: [LAUGHS] Hal is a [BLEEP].
BOB GARFIELD: Watson has no volition, evil or otherwise. It’s, it’s just a, a rather remarkably evolved tool. Think of Deep Blue. That was the computer that IBM finished 14 years ago to challenge a grandmaster in chess, remember? Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov, but it did not, you know, go on to refuse to open the pod bay doors. What it did do was show Kasparov how to get better at chess. He, in fact, helped stage a second competition in which man and ordinary personal computer teamed up against the supercomputer, Deep Blue. Here’s Clive.
CLIVE THOMPSON: You could get a grandmaster with a cheap chess program and they could be a better chess player than Deep Blue. And, in fact, it even got weirder than that because at the end of the first advanced chess competition, the winning team wasn't even a grandmaster. It was a comparative amateur at chess.
BOB GARFIELD: So maybe the analogy isn't Hal. Maybe the analogy is like the Bionic Man.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly, exactly. The future of computers and humans and intelligence isn't gonna be Hal. It’s going to be Steve Austin, you know, the Bionic Man, the, the guy whose intelligent assistance from machinery makes him more powerful than the average person.
RICHARD ANDERSON AS OSCAR GOLDMAN Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man, better, stronger, faster.
BOB GARFIELD: Better, stronger, faster, and, doggone it, people like him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, Bob, we, we already have some of this technology. I mean, right now you can hold up your iPhone, if you have the right app, to any building or monument or product and find out everything you need to know through the eyes of the Internet. They call it “Google Eyes” and you can get them. A few years down the line, we could have the Terminator’s eyes.
BABIK PAVIZ: The contact lenses that we have at the moment are very rudimentary. Basically, what we have is contact lenses that have small antennas and small radios integrated into their structure. The radio waves convert software to useable energy for the circuitry, and very recently we've been able to turn on very, very basic text on the contact lens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Babik Paviz. He’s an associate professor of bionanotechnology and nanofabrication at the University of Washington. Here’s what I asked him: Would you like to be able to access through your eyes face recognition technology and Google searches, and so forth, so that somebody standing next to you on the subway becomes fully knowable?
BABIK PAVIZ: I think that will definitely happen. You have your normal vision, but superimposed on that you have some more data, could be a search result or a result of a face recognition program or a GPS that is telling you where, where to go.
BOB GARFIELD: Can I go back to dystopia for a second?
[AUDIENCE LAUGHS] That’s, that’s cool, but being able to see what we want to see superimposed onto the actual world, doesn't that allow us to filter out what we dislike, like in my case, Glenn Beck and the New York Yankees? Do we really want to put on high tech blinders?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: High tech blinders worried me, too, so I asked Jamais Cascio about it. He works at the Institute for the Future. You’re walking down the street and you see somebody who supports a position you don't like, and you've adjusted your augmented reality glasses so that a little black dot covers up their face?
JAMAIS CASCIO: Right. You don't want to make them invisible, or you - which eventually you might be able to have technology that could do that, because you don't want to run into ‘em, of course, but you want to have some way of identifying this is someone whose political or social positions I find abhorrent, and I don't want to accidentally run into them and engage them in conversation. As with every technology we develop, there are inevitably negative, surprising consequences that emerge alongside the, you know, broad social benefits.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm-hmm, so contact lenses don't obliterate people, people obliterate people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Well, when you put it that way, it seems kind of trite. But I will fall back on my general theory that all this technology makes us only more of what we were going to be anyway, and, and really contact lenses like this are just a toy compared to what inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil thinks we have in store. In this clip from this film about Kurzweil, Transcendent Man, he remembers that in 1965 the computer at MIT took up a large part of a building, and look how far we've come.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
RAY KURZWEIL: Speak to young people, teenagers, and, and even in their lifetimes they can see how much more quickly technology moves today than it did –
[SOUND OF CRASHES/EXPLOSIONS] - five years ago. The nature of technological progress is exponential. If I count linearly, 30 steps, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, I get to 30. If I count exponentially, 2, 4, 8, 16, 30 steps later I'm at a billion. It makes a dramatic difference. So, we went from a building to something that fits in your pocket in 40 years. And in the next 25 years, we'll go from something that fits in your pocket to something that’s the size of a blood cell.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He believes in a concept he calls the Singularity, where technological progress becomes so rapid it will erase the lines between AI, human consciousness, biology and technology. We'll be omniscient and immortal. And he already has a hard date for when this will occur, the Singularity. He says it will happen in 2042. That's right, Bob. When I'm 65 and you’re 92, we'll hit the next -
[BOB/AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] - evolutionary landmark together! And human intelligence will multiply a billion-fold. People will no longer surf the Web. They will be the Web.
BOB GARFIELD: The Internet are us, eh? Maybe. On the other hand, Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality, says that Singularity is a pipe dream.
JARON LANIER: The Singularity is a mass fantasy of certain kinds of nerdy people that allows them to not take responsibility and to pretend that technology’s running the show, so that they can just be along for the ride. The obvious parallel to draw is to certain religious ideas that the world’s gonna end and that some people that are here today are just sort of obsolete. And I'm thinking of the idea of the Rapture that you find in the American evangelical community, this notion that there’s gonna be this event where some people disappear and the ones who are left are the ones who didn't get it or something. So it’s entirely based on faith.
BOB GARFIELD: Brooke, I’m going to stop right here. It seems to me that this gets to the whole point of tonight’s discussion, because I know Kurzweil is fine with the Rapture [LAUGHS] comparison. He believes the desire to transcend our earthly selves is entirely human. It’s just that he thinks it’s no pipe dream; he, he believes that we'll have the technology.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, and Lanier doesn't condemn technology’s march. He just says that we need to be conscious of the implications every step of the way. He says that being human is still such a profound mystery that we shouldn't be rushing off into the new technology before we plumb that mystery.
BOB GARFIELD: And Kurzweil [LAUGHS] says that humanity is a moving target, not a problem to be solved, but a process that we need to embrace.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Lanier says [LAUGHS] when we go online, we compromise our full humanity and we trim ourselves to fit the narrow categories of Facebook or the character constraints of Twitter.
BOB GARFIELD: But Kurzweil says that all those limitations will be erased with technology’s exponential growth. We may be bionic, we may navigate a virtual world, hand in hand with artificial intelligence, but we will still, always will, have responsibility to other human beings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, as we speak, Watson may be winning tonight’s competition. Computers are gradually getting to be more like us. I guess it’s up to us to decide whether or not that'll actually be an improvement.
BOB GARFIELD: Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for - mulling it over with us.
[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE/UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman, P.J. Vogt and Sarah Abdurrahman, with more help from Andrew Parsons, Carlin Galietti, Ricardo Fernandez, Eric Camins, Nikki Johnson and Amy Pearl. And our show was edited – by Brooke.
[LAUGHTER] Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were John DeLore and Dylan Keefe.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts at Onthemedia.org. You can also post comments there. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, and you can email us at Onthemedia@wnyc.org. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: Wait, let me check the script. [PAUSE] And I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very much.