Rodney Brooks on the Singularity: 'It's Going To Be a Period, If It Happens'

As part of our special report The Singularity, we interviewed Rodney Brooks on his views on superhuman intelligence and the future of robotics. Watch the interview (transcript below) and read also the article he wrote for the report, I, Rodney Brooks, Am a Robot.

Full transcript:

We are machines. We're made up of biomolecules that obey the laws of physics and chemistry. So therefore, in principle, one can imagine building another sort of machine, out of other sort of stuff which was equally intelligent as us, or perhaps more intelligent. It's a working hypothesis, but maybe we're overestimating our abilities.

I think it's really hard to make long-term predictions about the nature of artificial intelligent machines, just as it's been really difficult to make long term predictions about electronics. If you look at electronics in the early twentieth century, who could've imagined what we'd have at the end of the twentieth century?

It's undeniable that right now artificial intelligence and computers in general are benefiting from exponential increases in computing power and even the exponential increase in scientific research that's happening. So some people hypothesize that at some point an intelligent machine will spring into existence and there will be a complete separation between before and after. But I don't think that technology quite works that way. We are building more and more intelligent systems. They're much more intelligent than they were five years ago, ten years ago, or twenty years ago, and that process will continue.

We may at some point say, "Wow, things have really changed," in the same way if you look at cell phones today compared to cell phones twenty years ago'that's a big difference. But it didn't happen all on one day, it gradually evolved. So it's going to be a period, if it happens, it's not going to be a sudden event.

Perhaps I'm a little cynical, but sometimes when I look at some of the literature around the singularity, it sort of seems to me to be a techno-salvation, where somehow technologists are looking for a way to get eternal life without having to go to the bother of believing in God, because they can believe the technology is going to provide it for them. And I'm skeptical about all forms of eternal life.

A lot of technologists see one of two possible outcomes: either everything is going to hell and the machines that we build will just want to take over us, from us, it will be like a Hollywood movie. Others sort of see, these machines are going to make life great. We'll be writing poetry and eating grapes and life will be wonderful. Nothing's ever as bad as we expect or as good as we expect. I think it will be somewhere in the middle. Many of our machines have turned out to be great for us, but they come with problems, and I think that's going to happen with intelligent machines too.

I'm a techno-optimist. I really think technology is great, and will continue to be. Whether it can solve every problem for everyone who's now alive, I don't think is likely to be true. I think there's going to be a continuing cycle of living and dying for a long time to come. What's happening 200 years from now, 500 years from now is impossible to begin to imagine. But in the lifetime of'my own lifetime, in the lifetime of my kids, I don't think things are going to be too-too different from what they are for most of us today.



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