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Abbot Peter Novokosky

Machines getting smarter

Easter is one of the most revolutionary events in history. Jesus’ death and resurrection released a power — the Holy Spirit — that has revolutionized not only individual people’s lives, but has also deeply influenced human cultures.

There is another revolution going on today, one that many are unaware of. It is called the “information revolution.”

It is the creation of artificial intelligence (AI).

Its most recent achievement occurred on March 9. A computer beat a professional human player at the complex board game called Go. The game, which originated in ancient China, “is considered to be the pinnacle of game AI research,” said artificial intelligence researcher Demis Hassabis of Google DeepMind, the British company that developed the AlphaGo program.

AlphaGo swept a five-game match against three-time European Go champion and Chinese professional Fan Hui. Until now, the best computer Go programs had played only at the level of human amateurs. Go is a game with extremely simple rules that lead to profound complexity. “Go is probably the most complex game ever devised by humans,” said Hassabis, a former child chess prodigy.

The victory recalls the chess victory of IBM supercomputer Deep Blue over Russian Grand Master Garry Kasparov in 1997. However, AI is making inroads into tasks such as automated weapons systems, driverless cars, human-like robots and smart phone assistants like Apple’s Siri.

However, not everything looks rosey with the latest revolution. Serious moral and ethical questions have been raised about what future AI developments might lead to.

World-famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, for one, has cautioned that rapid advances in AI without some thought into what they mean for humanity could threaten human survival.

“The biggest challenge that our development in AI and robotics presents to us is a challenge to our human exceptionalism,” said David J. Gunkel, professor of communication at Northern Illinois University and the author of The Machine Question: Critical Perspectives on AI, Robots and Ethics.

“We have always thought of ourselves, in the medieval way of thinking, as the top of the chain of being. We’re now on the verge of creating machines that push against or at least challenge the position we’ve given ourselves.”

Don Howard, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, said humanity must address the near-term challenge that smart robots are replacing human labour at an accelerating rate. It’s not just factory work where robots are beginning to replace humans, but even in service industries, including bars and restaurants, he said.

Significant progress has also been made in developing machines to provide basic care to the elderly. While low-wage earners will be most affected by this revolution, other more skilled jobs being taken over by smart machines include television and film animation, drafting and design work, and journalism.

Many developments in AI may go unnoticed by the average person today, but its implications are being increasingly addressed by concerned citizens. It is wise to be forewarned so that we can be forearmed to deal with the consequences.