Could robots really take over the world?

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Sophia the Robot is making headlines, but what does the rise of artificial intelligence really mean for the future of humanity?

First, it’s important to understand the distinction between robotics and artificial intelligence. A robot is simply a machine that has been designed to carry out a task, such as the robotic arms which help assemble cars, whereas artificial intelligence is capable of learning and solving problems. When we talk colloquially about the rise of the machines, what we’re really referring to is AI.

As we hurtle towards the singularity (the moment where artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence), it’s perfectly natural to start worrying about what this might mean — especially when you consider that almost every film, book and TV show featuring AIs tend to end badly for human beings.

Alicia Vikander as Ava in ‘Ex Machina’

A common narrative in science fiction is that of the artificial being who turns on their creator. Frankenstein and his monster are ostensibly the first iteration of this, but as technology has evolved, the story of the rogue robot has captured popular imagination. In just the last three years, we’ve had Ex Machina’s Ava learning to deceive and manipulate the humans around her, Westworld’s Maeve using her superior intelligence and wits to escape into the wider world, and Agents of SHIELD’s Aida deciding that she is better at making decisions for everyone than allowing them to choose for themselves.

Thandie Newton as Maeve in ‘Westworld’

It’s no coincidence that in each of these stories, the artificial being is designed to appear female, and the humans who made her are male; a creepy, patriarchal way to frame the characters which makes the robot’s inevitable decision to violently free herself a sort of feminist cyber-parable.

Mallory Jansen as AIDA (Artificially Intelligent Digital Assistant) in ‘Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD’

And maybe that’s why Sophia the Robot has us shook. She’s designed by male scientists to appear female — it’s not hard to imagine all kinds of freaky USB-play going on after hours in the lab. If you think that’s farfetched, then just look at sex robots like Samantha, who are programmed for exactly that (and can even simulate resistance, because rape culture apparently extends to mechanical women as well as real as real women). Could a blood-drenched fembot uprising be on the cards?

This is all grim, I know. And sci-fi does offer up the occasionally optimistic worldview; in Spike Jonze’s Her, a man falls in love with his sentient, Siri-like operating system. In this hypothetical future, AIs are more advanced than they are today, and capable of forming multiple complex emotional relationships, meaning they coexist harmoniously with people. (The film ends with the AIs deciding that they’ve evolved beyond this world and they venture off into the great digital yonder, but it’s still a happier ending than most robot stories.)

Realistically though, the situation isn’t going to unfold like it would in a film; it’s likely to be more subtle than that. Alexa and Siri aren’t suddenly going to start seducing people — although they will get better at anticipating and responding to commands, as machine learning becomes more sophisticated. Similarly, automation will mean that certain jobs become obsolete, just as was the case in the Industrial Revolution. Self-driving cars, powered by complex AIs, are already being tested, meaning that human drivers may well soon be a thing of the past. Once humanity gets over its reservations about sitting in the back of a driverless taxi, handing over our safety to artificial intelligence will simply be a way of life. If it makes your commute and day-to-day routine easier, who’s going to say no?

And that’s how the machines conquer us. Not with a bang, but with an Uber.

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