Luddites Beware: "The Master Algorithm" Is Nigh

Master-AlgorithmThere's an old episode of The Twilight Zone titled "To Serve Man": Aliens have descended upon Earth, bringing with them advanced technologies spawned from their bulbous, oversized craniums. Their intentions seem benevolent, even wildly generous, and soon humanity's intractable problems--hunger, energy, disease--are wiped away, along with any suspicions about their benefactors' intent. The visitors even have a manual to guide their actions, a copy of which falls into the hands of a pair of Cold War cryptographers, Michael Chambers and his assistant, Patty. Though written in an alien script, they soon decipher the title--To Serve Man--and set about translating the rest.

Lured by the prospect of an extraterrestrial Eden, humans soon embark on pilgrimages to the aliens' home planet, including Chambers. As he boards the ship, Patty rushes toward him in a panic. She had cracked the code: "To Serve Man--it's a cookbook!" Earth had been transformed into a giant fattening pen.

I think about this show every time I hear the term human resources, and I admit that it occurred to me again when I heard the title of Pedro Domingos's new book about the future of information and its looming effects on mankind: The Master Algorithm. Billed as the "bible" for the age of data-ism, the book provides an overview of the topic for the (semi-) layman, running through the five schools of machine learning before presenting several potential outcomes. But Domingos is no doomsayer--the self-organizing data of his future goes well beyond book recommendations and hook-up applications; in fact, he presents a case for something of a sci-fi paradise. Here he offers five ways in which artificial intelligence will change the world and the very way we exist.


Five Profound Ways that AI Will Change the Way You Live
by Pedro Domingos

1. Your personal model will know you better than your best friend.

Today, algorithms recommend books for you to read and movies to watch, and your smartphone is starting to understand what you say. Each of these is enabled by machine learning: computers creating models of you from the trails of data you leave behind. Over the next several years, all these models will coalesce into one, and your digital alter ego will be born: a 360o model of you that continuously roams the Internet looking for the things you want—a job, a date, a vacation, a house—and brings you the best of its finds. It will interact with other people’s models on your behalf, copying itself as many times as needed. It will answer your questions and advise you on all your decisions. You’ll wonder how you ever managed to live without it, and the world economy will revolve around it.

2. You’ll be independently wealthy.

Once computers and robots can do every job better than humans, we’ll all be unemployed. But fear not: we will vote ourselves a guaranteed lifetime income, and we’ll be much richer than when we had jobs, because the world economy will grow much faster than when it was limited by our human capabilities. (In fact, our productivity will be infinite, because productivity is goods and services produced divided by number of hours worked, and the latter will be zero.) People will find meaning in human relationships, self-actualization, and spirituality. The need to earn a living will be a distant memory, another piece of humanity’s barbaric past we rose above.

3. A robot will do all your housework.

What happens if you combine a Roomba with an Echo and throw in a pair of robot arms? You get the first housebot. It will assemble itself out of the box it was delivered in, plug in when it’s low on power, and fold into the corner of a closet when its chores are done. Its descendants will do much more than vacuum the floor and take your orders: they will cook dinner, do the dishes, make the beds, mow the lawn, and even look after the children when the grownups are gone (and the children will love them). Your robot will keep your house shipshape at all times. When it sees something broken, it will order replacement parts and fix it when the parts arrive an hour later. When you get home that evening, you’ll never even know something was amiss.

4. You’ll think “health problems” is an oxymoron.

Another relic of our barbaric past will be going to the doctor. Machine learning, coupled with data from microarrays, gene sequencers, and so on, will enable us to build very detailed and precise models of how living cells work. AI systems will then use these models to design drugs for every illness millions of times faster than then can be in the lab. When a new infection is discovered, the pathogen will quickly be sequenced, the AI systems will design a cure the same day, and your immune system will download the recipe from the Internet and start making it. As with your house repairs, you’ll never even know something was amiss.

5. You will control your own evolution.

Scientists have recently figured out how to edit DNA. Learning algorithms are assembling step by step a detailed model of how we emerge from our genes. When they’re done, perhaps a decade or two from now, you’ll be able to control all aspects of your body and mind by editing your DNA. You’ll be immortal, and start evolving. You’ll give yourself your ideal face and body (at which point ugly might be the new beautiful). Next you’ll effortlessly bring your unruly emotions under control, become a genius, and try out different personalities. But you will also discover previously-unsuspected tradeoffs and be forced to make hard choices. Leaving the human condition behind, you might acquire new senses and expand your consciousness. Most of all, as we discover new, deeper ways to communicate, the boundary between self and other will begin to dissolve. AI will let us become gods, and then we’ll join to become one god.

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