AI: will the machines ever rise up?

From Ex Machina to Terminator Genisys, ‘synths’ and robots have invaded our popular culture. But how real is the reel depiction of artificial intelligence?

The harried parents in one family in the Channel 4 drama Humans are divided about having a robot called Anita.

The father is delighted with the extra help; the mother unnerved and threatened. The teenage daughter, bright and hardworking, gives up at school after wondering why she would spend seven years to become a doctor, when a “Synth” could upload the skills in as many seconds. The teenage son, of course, is preoccupied with the sexual possibilities.

The thriller has become the biggest home-made drama on Channel 4 for more than two decades, according to viewing figures published this week, and is the latest to explore what has been described as perhaps the greatest existential threat the human race has ever faced, artificial intelligence: the idea that computers will start thinking for themselves and not much like what they see when they cast their eyes on their creators. The humanoid robots in Humans are not portrayed as good or evil but are dropped into suburbia, where the crises they cause are domestic: disrupting relationships, employment aspirations, and feelings of freedom.

Ava, from Ex Machina
AI robot Ava in the film Ex Machina. Photograph: Allstar/FILM4/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

It is a theme that has increasingly attracted screenwriters. In the 2013 film, Her, Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his computer’s intelligent operating system. In Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s directorial debut, a young coder must administer the Turing test to an AI robot called Ava with deadly results. There is also the release of Terminator Genisys the fifth instalment of the series, in which humans are forever trying to prevent a future world destroyed by the machines.

“We didn’t want to make a judgement on this world, but offer up the pros and cons in a world where synths exist and let our audience decide: is it good or bad?” Jonathan Brackley, one of the writers of Humans, told the Guardian. Co-writer, Sam Vincent, who worked with Brackley on Spooks, adds: “At the heart of the show is the question, does something have to be human for someone to have human feelings about it? The answer to us is no.”

The series plays out the consequences of human-like artificial intelligence in the humdrum reality of modern life, but Vincent and Brackley see parallels with our increasing attachment to electronic devices. “Technology used to be just for work. But we use it more than ever now to conduct every aspect of our lives. We are more intimate with it, and it understands us more, even as we understand it less,” says Vincent.

“There’s this very speculative human-like AI side to the series, and a completely real side of what our technology is doing to our emotional lives, our relationships, and society at large,” he adds.

Apocalyptic pronouncements from scientists and entrepreneurs have driven the surge in interest. It was the inventor Elon Musk who last year said artificial intelligence might be the greatest existential threat that humans faced. Stephen Hawking joined in the chorus, warning that the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. The same year, the Oxford scientist Nick Bostrom, published the thoughtful book Superintelligence, in which he made similarly gloomy predictions.

Concerns about the consequences of creating an intelligence that matches, or far exceeds, our own are not entirely new. HAL 9000, the artificial intelligence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, takes to bumping off astronauts with menacing efficiency. In Ridley Scott’s Alien, Ash is outed as an android with a secret agenda. His mission is to bring the murderous creature to Earth, never mind the safety of the human crew.

The present day setting for Humans gives the conflicts an immediate power and persuasiveness. But it also bolsters the misconception that human-like artificial intelligence is looming on the horizon. Though scientists have made serious progress in AI, the advances are almost entirely in what researchers call narrow AI: the creation of smart algorithms for dedicated tasks. An AI today can power a chatbot that answers common sales enquiries, or tease meaning from human speech. But assign one to any other simple task and it will fall flat. The University of Alberta’s Cepheus algorithm can play perfect Texas Hold’em. Challenge Cepheus to tiddly winks though, and it will not know where to begin.

“We really have no idea how to make a human level AI,” says Murray Shanahan, professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College London, who was a scientific adviser on Garland’s Ex machina. He rates the odds of scientists developing human-level AI as “possible but unlikely” between 2025 and 2050. In the second half of the century that becomes “increasingly likely, but still not certain.” A case of if, not when.

“The big hurdles are endowing computers and robots with common sense: being able to anticipate the consequences of ordinary, every day actions on people and things. The other one is endowing them with creativity. And that is incredibly hard,” he says.

Persona Synthetics shop selling Synths
The fictional Persona Synthetics shop selling ‘synths’. Channel 4 drama, Humans, creates a future where families buy human-like robots - synths, that help them with a variety of tasks from household chores to doing homework. Photograph: Persona Synthetics/Channel 4

The distinction between narrow and general artificial intelligence is crucial. Humans are so effective because they have general intelligence: the ability to learn from one situation and apply it to another. Recreating that kind of intelligence in computers could be decades away. Progress, though, is coming. Researchers at DeepMind, a London-based company owned by Google, made what they called “baby steps” towards artificial general intelligence in February when they unveiled a game-playing agent that could learn how to play retro games such as Breakout and Space Invaders and apply the skills to tackle other games.

But Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at Southampton University, stresses that the hurdles which remain are major ones. “Brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs talk about this as if it’s only two decades away. You really have to be taken on a tour of the algorithms inside these systems to realise how much they are not doing.”

“Can we build systems that are an existential threat? Of course we can. We can inadvertently give them control over parts of our lives and they might do things we don’t expect. But they are not going to do that on their own volition. The danger is not artificial intelligence, it’s natural stupidity.”


Ian Sample, science editor

The GuardianTramp

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