THIS question has, until now, been consigned to the realm of science fiction, encompassing works ranging from groundbreaking Isaac Asimov novel ‘I Robot’ to modern classics, like ‘Terminator’ and ‘The Matrix’.
However, earlier this year, the question received a more sober audience when an open letter warning of the risks of unfettered development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies was publicised.
The letter warned that AI was already being developed at a rapid rate and its impact on society would steadily increase as the economic rationale for progress went up.
It argued that any progress in the area should only be made if its intent is to produce a benefit to society – and not for straightforward scientific, or economic, reasons.
The letter has so far been signed by over 8000 people, including pre-eminent researchers and inventors, such as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, entrepreneur and Tesla founder Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
While some have said the letter, and the concerns it raises, have been hyped up by some news media, the core principle behind it remains compelling.
We have now managed to build and code robots with the capability of increasing their computational intelligence without human assistance.
In other words, by stored memory and cognition alone, they have managed to learn new things by themselves – and this is a trait that can only evolve.
While, by human standards, their intelligence levels are still farcical, and very narrow in focus, it is not inconceivable that, based on current exponential growth of technological advancement, they could develop intelligence levels far greater, and more generalised, than our own.
Worse still, they may become very self-conscious.
They will, after all, not be hindered by the finite processing and computational powers of a human brain.
When that day comes, one can only hope AI technologies will use their intelligence to develop a conscience, and strong sense of morality, for the betterment of humankind.
Until then, we must be willing to have open and honest discussions about the risks and benefits associated with all emergent technologies.