The stage has been set and the ultimate battle for superiority is heading our way like a freight train. In the wake of several advances this year with the development of artificial intelligence systems and techniques for genetic manipulation, everyone wants to know who will come out on top. One thing is for sure, in the title fight of the 21st century between artificial intelligence vs genetic enhancements, the outcome will change the world as we know it.
Advanced AI systems have been inching towards superiority for decades, beginning with the defeat suffered by world renowned chess champion, Gary Kasparov, at the hands of IBMs Deep Blue supercomputer in 1997. More recently, Jeopardy world champ, Ken Jennings, bowed down before yet another IBM precursor to the dreaded Terminator, Watson. Jennings took the loss a bit better than Kasparov did and even managed to slip some tongue-in-cheek humor into his ‘final jeopardy’ answer by writing “I for one welcome our new computer overlords.” Simpson’s fans everywhere immediately recognized the reference to the venerated sit-com episode where the local news announcer chooses betray the human race and offer his service to what appeared to be alien ant space invaders, which just turned out to be regular ants on the camera lens.
All kidding aside, these accomplishments were major milestones for artificial intelligence systems. It wasn’t too long ago that experts doubted anything we would be able to program into a computer would be able to match the mental prowess of our best and brightest. This belief is largely based on the enormous gap in processing capability between a human brain and today’s best supercomputers. It is estimated that the computational power of our brains runs somewhere around one quintillion (a billion, billion if you don’t want to look it up) calculations per second, or 1,000 petaflops. China’s Tianhe-2 is the reigning champ of supercomputers, but only operates at a relatively measly 33.86 petaflops. However, this may not be the case for long. On July 29th, 2015, President Obama signed an executive order to establish the National Strategic Computing Initiative for the purpose of creating the world’s first exaflop (1,000 petaflops) supercomputer.
Cynics will invariably call attention to the fact that, while processing speed is relevant, there’s much more to human brains and consciousness than we currently understand. In fact, the programming used to create machines like Watson and Deep Blue didn’t attempt to duplicate the manner in which the brain accomplishes various tasks, but rather employ certain patterns and algorithms that loosely resemble it. As with human flight, which was accomplished by understanding the physics of birds, but not replicating the mechanics exactly, AI systems will continue to evolve towards a similar output as the brain, but by taking a path that makes sense for its composition and framework.
Comic book fans everywhere have grown up reading about people with extraordinary abilities stemming from a tragic accident, mutation or alien origin. Of course, the science of the real world tells us that it’s unlikely anyone will ever “evolve” a way to shoot lightning bolts from their eyes or fly around the sky at will. However, the 2011 box office hit “Limitless” presented us with something that seemed a bit more plausible, if not just as appealing. The film starred Bradley Cooper, who’s character was enabled to enhance his mental and physical acuity by taking the fictional drug NZT-E. The film had such a following that CBS adapted the story into a new series, also called “Limitless“, which is slated to premier September 22nd, 2015.
Meanwhile, in the real world, a group of Chinese researchers published a paper on April 18th, announcing that their progress in developing gene editing techniques. Although their success rate left much to be desired, the team was able to insert the desired code into human embryonic DNA in a “fraction” of the 86 attempts conducted. There were also several unexpected “off-target” mutations, implying that there is still much to be learned about the interactions between genes. The study re-ignited the debate over the morality of genetic manipulation in human beings and experimentation on human embryos.
Although the final outcome of this heated discussion is still unclear, the fact that there are scientists continuing their research in the field and steadily improving their techniques means that there will likely come a point where our society will have the ability to select the traits of its next generation. The consequences of such a breakthrough are far reaching. While genetics and environment interact together in the development of a person, our DNA does create certain predispositions for traits like intelligence, agility and health. These enhanced humans would likely develop brains with superior memory and clarity of thought, raising the biological bar for human computational capacity to unknown heights.
So what would happen when our supercharged, exaflop AI meets the genetically enhanced superhumans of the future? Since the AI will have essentially caught up to our present day “brain power” the superhumans may still demonstrate intellectual superiority over artificial intelligence. Perhaps a future “Gary Kasparov” or “Ken Jennings” will reclaim the championship titles lost by their ancestors. The biggest mystery of all is whether they will work together to improve the world and coexist peacefully or seek each others destruction in a bitter rivalry for superiority. Only time will tell, but I’m betting that these two species would possess such an unimaginable level of intelligence that they would recognize the value of all life, whether biological or technological, and might even seek to merge into a third race of techno-organic beings even more advanced than either of them.