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The world's greatest minds have been terrified of AI becoming smarter than humans for 60 years


The number one idea that futurists are obsessed with is the Singularity, or the moment when technological intelligence outpaces human intelligence. 

The threat of artificial intelligence is everywhere in science fiction. There's Eva in "Ex Machina," HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey," and the robot overlords in "The Matrix." In each of these cases, sentient robots turn on or totally dominate their human creators.

What we now call the Singularity has been pondered since the dawn of computing.

While artificial intelligence feels very new in some ways ("Ex Machina" was maybe the best movie of 2015), it traces back to the first discussions of artificial intelligence and its applications, reaching back to the very birth of computer science. 

 The most telling example is Alan Turing, the visionary British mathematician played by Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Imitation Game." 

Turing, whose codebreaking saved millions of lives during World War II and is now largely credited with inventing the modern computer, described his vision of what we now call the Singularity in a 1951 lecture, "'Intelligent Machinery: A Heretical Theory." 

Turing said that the creation of thinking machines would probably be blocked by religion, as was the case with Galileo, who was convicted for heresy for saying the Earth moves around the sun, and by intellectuals, who would fear they'd be out of a job. 

Those intellectuals would still have plenty to do, Turing reasoned, since they'd need to both figure out what the machines were trying to say and keep their intelligence up to the standard set by machines. 

That's where things get unnerving. 

"It seems probable that once the machine thinking method had started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers," Turing wrote, noting that the machines wouldn't die. Like humans, however, they'd be able to converse with each other to grow more intelligent. 

"At some stage" he says," we should have to expect the machines to take control." 

The outstripping of feeble human powers by machines got a special name from mathematician I. J. Good, who called it an "intelligence explosion" in a 1965 essay

The logic is simple enough: if intelligent machines become more skilled than humans at designing intelligent machines, we hit the Singularity. 

"An ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines," he said. "There would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion,' and the intelligence of man would be left far behind."

Both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are alarmed by the idea of the intelligence explosion. It's why Musk has said that artificial intelligence is more dangerous than nukes

It certainly looks like we're getting closer to the Singularity. 

As a recent New Yorker profile of the philosopher Nick Bostrom notes, computers have been beating humans in games of strategy since 1981. And thanks to the vastness of computer crunching power available in the cloud, robots and computers are able to do things that, up until now, they couldn't. There are now robots that stabilize themselves after being pushed, for example, and computer vision programs that identify faces better than humans can. 

If you ask Google futurist Ray Kurzweil, from the 2020s on we'll have nanobots that destroy diseases entering our bodies while also connecting our minds directly to the Internet

There are stil compelling criticisms about the whole idea of computational "intelligence." For one, neither hard science nor social science can agree on what intelligence is, and whether it's "computational" in the same way that binary computer code is. Perhaps, as the burgeoning field of embodied cognition is discovering, our bodies are involved in our thinking in crucial ways — which would create some obstacles for creating a computer with general intelligence. 

That's the crazy thing about artificial intelligence and the Singularity. Right now it's a thought experiment. But if it ever comes to fruition, life on Earth will be changed forever.

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