Rutronik News

“It’s in My Head!”

  Newsletter Article

“May you live in interesting times” is a curse used in the Agatean Empire, an empire modeled after imperial China from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Whether this is a curse or a blessing here on Earth lies in the eye of the beholder – but it is certain that we are indeed living in interesting times. Technological development is advancing at breakneck speed; artificial intelligence is perhaps the hottest topic ever. And as we reported in two previous articles, it has long stopped being simply the stuff of science fiction novels. But smart assistants and clever wearables are by no means the end of the story – especially since AI could increase the annual growth of the global economy by 1.2 percent, as the management consulting firm McKinsey has calculated.

Today we get the weather forecast from an app - not from the nightly news. Today an app tells us how to book the cheapest train tickets - and not the friendly clerk behind the counter. And today an app tells us how best to drive from point A to point B - and not a road atlas. Digital helpers already relieve us of many tiresome tasks, saving us time and energy, while simultaneously becoming ever smarter. But this also makes us dependent on them - would we still be able to find our destination without a GPS, by relying solely on the road signs and our sense of direction?

"We're losing our ability to navigate, delegating it to a machine, and in the end we've lost that skill and become dependent - the machine doesn't just help us out, it guides us," says physicist and TV host Ranga Yogeshwar. He takes a critical view of the development of artificial intelligence: "We humans are playing in the field of artificial intelligence just like we would with a baby tiger and think it's great - but someday it's not going to be a baby anymore, but a dangerous predator." This puts Yogeshwar on the same wavelength as Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who considers artificial intelligence to be the devil incarnate. AI software can now easily wipe the floor with people in many games that involve creativity and strategy - like Go or 2048 - and even develop their own new strategies.

But despite all of the doom and gloom, we certainly love to use artificial intelligence, for example in movies - like the MASSIVE software package that created thousands of actors with their own artificial intelligence for the epic battles in The Lord of the Rings. AI is also used in many other movies, including I, Robot; 300; and the TV series Dr. Who. In addition, robots with artificial intelligence are already being selectively used in geriatric care because they are already capable of simulating emotions and reacting to human emotions.

Incidentally, this hasn't just been the case since yesterday - Joseph Weizenbaum, one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence, developed a rather simple language-processing program called ELIZA back in 1966. This program was to have a conversation with people and generate answers through pattern recognition. This worked so well that Weizenbaum's secretary and many others held serious conversations with the program. The researcher was so frightened by this development that he ended up becoming a vocal critic of AI. Today AIs are much more sophisticated, in fact so much so that some experts predict that marriages between artificial intelligences and humans will be legal by 2050. In terms of equality, by the way, the machines are already more advanced than we are - robots and AI assistants usually have a female voice because it sounds more emotional, smoother, and less threatening than that of a man.

Development is still ongoing, however, and could cause the phrase "you're reading my mind" to take on a whole new meaning. In any case, Facebook has announced that in a few years' time, we will be able to think our text messages onto our smartphones. Ranga Yogeshwar still thinks this is science fiction: "The brain is the most complex structure we know of, and all our brains are different. At most, we will only see rudimentary translations from the biological world into the electronic world."

Communications expert Miriam Meckel, who was interviewed by Stern magazine together with Mr. Yogeshwar, is more optimistic - she believes that in the distant future, our brains could all be linked via a powerful wireless connection and create a kind of swarm consciousness in the cloud. She admits that this is still a long way off, and so far only small areas of the brain can be controlled - but progress is being made. Which is definitely a blessing for patients with Parkinson's disease or locked-in syndrome. Nor does she share the concern about the increasing digitization of human beings - after all, we've long been cyborgs: "Our smartphone is already a part of who we are. True, I still have to hold it in my hand. But it's only a matter of time before it becomes a part of us."

In any case, we still seem to take a very positive view of these innovations - for now. There are already companies today that implant a chip in their employees for time tracking, to open doors, and even to turn on the coffee machine. This basically turns staff into microchipped pets, and they go along with it voluntarily. But we aren't fans of the idea at all. What if our boss could then monitor our - admittedly astronomical - coffee consumption and say after the fifth cup: "You're cut off - it's getting too expensive and it's also not good for your heart"?