Set a terminator to catch a terminator

June 2015

Dr Lynch on the beginnings of humankind, and why AI doesn’t mark the end of it.

Current fashionable thinking in scientific circles is that the first cells on earth began in the warm chemical laden waters around undersea hydrothermal vents where small droplets of lipids formed the first cells powered by the chemicals emanating from deep below the earth. Now it seems that another key point in the rise of the dominance of wetware, and ultimately humans, on earth was also down to these magic-laden warm waters. Eons later, recent genetic analysis suggests that one large cell swallowed one small one, but rather than digesting it, the two continued to live in harmony, one inside the other. This gave rise to the advanced cells of which all animals, including you and me, are composed. Our smaller hitchhikers are the mitochondria, or energy-producing parts, inside each of our living cells. I find it incredible to think that all of the animal kingdom, humanity and indeed our culture, could be traced back to one cell eating another deep below the oceans.

All of this brings me to the present day, where wetware is dominant and humans define the modern world. But as I have written recently, intellectual heavyweights such as Stephen Hawking are forecasting the end of this dominance, speculating that the recent explosion in artificial intelligence (AI) will send us hurtling towards a post-human future. It is unsurprising that an air of concern hovers over whether the rapid development in AI technology holds hidden threats for the human race. Over the last thirty years, we have witnessed an immense acceleration in AI development, producing machines with the ability to learn, communicate and interact with us. There are many people who fear we are on the brink of, or arguably are already in the middle of, ‘singularity'; a term coined by mathematician and author Vernor Vinge to describe the inflection point when machines outsmart humans, possibly resulting in "the physical extinction of the human race."

Vinge's 1993 essay titled ‘The Singularity', argued that "we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on earth." According to scientists, humanity's future could be similar to that of the mitochondria; once independent organisms which were absorbed and incorporated by that ancestral cell called Lokiarchaeote.

It has been suggested that as humans continue to transfer more and more tasks to machines, including examples considered to be fundamental to humanity such as caring for the elderly, that we are becoming the mitochondria of our machines. It has been predicted that where mitochondria-hosting cells instigated an extraordinary expanse of multi-cellular life forms which had never been possible before, in a "human-machines world", humans could transcend their natural limitations and drastically alter the post-human being. Whilst this is a fascinating prospect, it creates the possibility of making independent human input only part of the equation and as a result, we evolve ourselves into a very different future.

Humans, of course, are prone to exaggerating probabilistic dangers as a form of self-defence. We can overestimate the likelihood that we will have computers smarter than human beings and exaggerate the danger that these might pose to the human race, but in reality the development of intelligent machines is likely to be a slower and more gradual process than sudden extermination by cyborgs. Rather, they will creep up on us.

In the financial markets computer-trading platforms are already placing trades faster than human regulators can track them, let alone regulate them, which can lead to the so-called ‘flash crash' effect. This is a huge threat to the foundations of our financial systems and will necessarily give rise to a solution that can only come from the machines themselves, as the only way to rein in the computers is with other computers. Regulation technology in financial institutions will reduce costs of meeting compliance requirements, de-risk operations and remove many of the headaches related to staying current. In other words, you have to set a terminator to catch a terminator.

In a world where we are moving towards machines performing faster and more complex processes on our behalf, we are forced to turn to those very same machines in order to police them, and the irony of this is not lost. As for the machines that watch the machines, look for a new buzzword encompassing the new regulator machines, ‘RegTech' and a frenzy of venture capital investments and fortunes made and lost, but will that be by the humans or the machines?

A version of this article appeared in Cambridge News.