Vast resources are now available on individuals from a multitude of sources. If you have a machine intelligence that can draw this information together, you’ve got a mind that embraces the Internet and can sift through it with great speed and pluck out what information it needs. As a storage device, the Internet dwarfs all others. The human brain contains the equivalent of about 3.5 quadrillion bytes of information; the Internet contains 10 times that amount. But what would a robot whose mind embraces the Internet be able to do with all that information? That becomes clear once you start to look at the narrow bits of artificial intelligence that are now emerging.
The ability to speak has improved by leaps and bounds in the past decade. The mechanical voice you hear when calling the phone company to inquire about a bill seems more annoying than potentially destructive, but only if you fail to imagine the day when the ability to program a ma- chine to understand language and speak it is just a tool that you can buy at RadioShack. The voice speaking to you from your iPhone and fielding your queries started out as advanced technology in elite labs a few decades ago, and now it’s part of a common experience.
Where natural-language ability gets dangerous, potentially, is when it gets a bit more powerful, then seeps down to common usage and becomes a relatively inexpensive tool that just about anyone can use. It’s not just the ability to listen to spoken commands; it’s a matter of interpreting human intent and responding in a way that sounds, well, human. If machines can do that well, then it may get harder to tell them from real humans.
A machine that can understand a human by spoken language and can also move easily in the world of humans could do a lot of other humanlike things. You can imagine using computer technology to impersonate a human—perhaps even someone you know. The idea of a computer that can sense human feelings and come up with an appropriate response is a legitimate subject of research these days, and companies such as Google and Microsoft have a keen interest in it. Crude emotive software has already been used with autistic children to bring out hidden social skills. As scientists understand more about how to simulate human emotions, they may increase the ability of computers to pass themselves off as human.
When you consider this possibility, you can imagine the kind of disruption that could ensue in a terrorist plot to use computers to impersonate people. This type of identify theft goes well beyond what we know now. It’s not hard to go from these kinds of identity-theft scenarios to one in which machines (or software, which is a type of machine) orchestrate vast disruptions to our economy. The confusion that would reign if software began impersonating important people, handing out conflicting commands, causing markets to tumble and people to behave in odd ways, adds a whole new dimension to the kind of damage that a Stuxnet-like bot could do to the economy.
The precursors to a machine version of Jason Bourne are drones. They are now used by the military, but what happens when the technology that makes it possible to build a drone becomes commonplace, when it’s easy enough for states or even individuals to acquire the capabilities now reserved for the U.S. military? You could imagine a group like al-Qaida or Aum Shinrikyo or Hamas getting their hands on drones that could take out political targets in Washington, D.C., or New York City.
At the moment, this is a bit far-fetched, but it won’t be for long. Scientists have implanted computer chips in the brains of beetles. The chip is connected to the beetle’s nervous system and sends tiny pulses of electricity that make the beetle turn left or right or fly up or down. The chips also have little radio receivers that put the beetles at the remote command of their researcher overlords. In the lab, they’ve gotten the beetles to zig and zag and do loop-de-loops. It’s not an ominous technology at the moment, but it does give the future of drones a new twist. You could imagine a swarm of locusts that respond to digital control wreaking havoc on crops. You could imagine a swarm of bugs with surveillance cameras in their mandibles fanning out across the land in search of particular people that some remote military power wants to target. Mix some gene manipulation in there and you could envision some kind of venomous creature under remote command that can inflict a paralyzing or fatal dose of poison. And so on.
If drone technology keeps marching along, you can imagine a day when the cops can send bee-like to your house to see if you’re growing marijuana plants or running a crystal meth lab in your basement. The first worry about a new technology that is publicly expressed is often concern for privacy. We don’t tend to tell real horror stories in advance—nobody wants to scare people off new technologies that could be beneficial. But you could just as easily imagine how such mechanical bees could, if in the wrong hands, cause considerable disruption. Drones could wind up having many productive civilian uses, but having self-reliant machines in our lives is going to be an adjustment.
We already have hard enough time living with insects as pests. Imagine when they’re tiny versions of Jason Bourne with wings.
This article is adapted from Fred Guterl’s The Fate of the Species (Bloomsbury). Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.