For most of human history, the idea that machines would evolve to the point that they would assist humans in decision-making was the stuff of science fiction. Science fiction writers have long been of two minds about what might happen to humans if machines could actually “think.” One vision was decidedly Utopian. Machines helped humans solve problems beyond their ability to resolve, and partnered with humans to carry out the run-of-the-mill, mundane work humans perform, freeing us to pursue higher callings.
To a large extent, that vision is being realized. Driverless cars are tested on our roads today. Autopilot devices fly the planes we travel on across continents. Surgical robots perform operations too delicate for human hands. High-speed computers make stock and commodity trading decisions in microseconds, by-passing the delay of human intervention. And, as forecasted, industrial robots now perform much of the routinized, assembly-line work that marked the Industrial Revolution.
The growing dominance of robots in the manufacturing sector, which has caused enormous economic dislocation and triggered the erosion of our middle class, also feeds into the darker vision of the potential competition between machines and humans. Perhaps the best science fiction expresses the dystopian view that, at some point, autonomously thinking machines will turn on humans and pose an existential threat to the human race. Indeed, more than a few artificial intelligence experts, including Stephen Hawkins and Elon Musk, worry that that point is not long off, even though no one would contend that today’s machines have reached a level of beyond-human-intelligence, or “singularity,” that poses that sort of risk.