Priyanka Pandey

“The pace of progress in artificial intelligence is incredibly fast. Unless you have direct exposure to groups like Deepmind, you have no idea how fast—it is growing at a pace close to exponential.” – Elon Musk

“A year spent in Artificial Intelligence is enough to make one believe in God.” – Alan Perlis

It wasn’t so long ago that humanoid robots were merely a fantasy. Not anymore. Now there are advanced humanoid robots like Sophia, Atlas and Talos which can imitate human gestures, do a variety of search and rescue tasks and can also operate power tools. Sophia has appeared on various talk shows like the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and in some music videos, one of which had her as the lead female character. She also has Saudi Arabian citizenship, becoming the first robot to have a nationality. This sparked interesting conversations on whether she could vote or marry, or whether a deliberate system shutdown could be considered murder. A video of Atlas robot was also released to YouTube where he was seen performing backflips and practicing robot parkour.

On August 22, 2019, Russia successfully launched a Soyuz spacecraft with no human crew but a humanoid robot, Skybot S850, originally known as FEDOR (Final Experimentation Demonstration Object Research). However, it was not the first robot to go into space. In 2011, NASA sent up Robonaut 2, which returned to Earth in 2018.

Artificial intelligence has become so commonplace that we don’t even realise that we are using it every day. Be it web searches on Google, product suggestions on Amazon, music recommendations on Spotify or just booking a cab on Uber. We all have had enough discussions on how artificial intelligence can change everything around us. But how far have we reached in this journey?

On July 31, 2019, The Verge published an article about an initiative called ‘Sentient’ which was presented at the 35th Annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO. A product of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Sentient is a fully integrated intelligence system that can coordinate satellite positions and may soon be used to manage battlefield operations during military engagements. In simpler words, American intelligence agencies have been developing a top-secret ‘Artificial Brain’ Military AI System. Research related to Sentient have been ongoing since 2010. Until now, it had been treated as a government secret, except for a few indirect references in speeches and presentations. Government officials are still tight-lipped on what the AI system can do and how it will be used in future conflicts.

So, what really are Artificial Brains? Artificial Brains are man-made software and hardware that are just as intelligent, creative, and self-aware as humans. These machines can function similar to an animal or a human brain. Not just that, there have also been researches about Whole Brain Emulation (WBE). Also known as ‘mind uploading’ or ‘mind copying’, WBE is a futuristic process of scanning the mental state of a particular brain and copying it to a computer. This computer then can process information and respond in essentially the same way as the original brain would do. So, the knowledge and intelligence of anyone can be preserved and used forever, even after the death of that person. Artificial Brain and WBE has been a theme in many works of science fiction. Some examples include Movies like Star Trek, Transcendence and Captain America, and television shows like Warehouse 13, Simpsons and Black Mirror.

In May 2005, the Brain and Mind Institute of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland founded a project called, ‘The Blue Brain Project’. This project aims to create a digital reconstruction of rodent and eventually human brains by reverse-engineering mammalian brain circuitry. The project is headed by the founding director Henry Markram—who also launched the European Human Brain Project (HBP) which is a ten-year scientific research project that aims to advance knowledge in the fields of neuroscience, computing, and brain-related medicine. “It is not impossible to build a human brain and we can do it,” he said at a TED Global conference in Oxford, “…and if we do succeed, we will send a hologram to TED to talk”. In 2018, Blue Brain Project released its first digital 3D brain cell atlas of every cell in the mouse brain which provides information about major cell types, numbers, and positions in 737 regions of the brain. This can accelerate the progress in brain science massively. While Blue Brain is able to represent complex neural connections on a large scale, the project does not achieve the link between brain activity and behaviours executed by the brain.

Joshua Blue is another project under development by IBM that focuses on designing and programming computers that can think like humans. It is said to acquire knowledge through external stimuli present in its environment, similar to how children learn human traits through interacting with their surroundings. IBM has not yet released any significant information regarding how Joshua Blue will physically gather information, but they have revealed that it will be a computer with a network of wires and input nodes that function as a computer nervous system. This nervous system will allow the machine to interpret the significance of events. Other than Joshua Blue, IBM is attempting to imitate the common functions of a human brain through two of their other projects — Deep Blue, a logic-based chess playing computer, and Watson, a question-driven artificial intelligence software program.

There is an ongoing attempt by neuroscientists to understand how a human brain works with the goal of having something known as Strong AI. Given current trends in neuroscience, computing, and nanotechnology, it is likely that artificial general intelligence will emerge soon, possibly by the 2030s.

Strong AI has been a controversial topic as some believe it can be inherently dangerous. This may lead to human cloning and it cannot be estimated how big this threat might be against nature. A major problem in this is that an unfriendly artificial intelligence system is likely to be much easier to produce than a friendly system. Some public figures, such as Theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, Microsoft founder, Bill Gates and Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, have advocated research into precautionary measures to ensure future super intelligent machines remain under human control and ‘AI Takeover’ remains a hypothetical situation.

On the other hand, there are people who are a major proponent of AI like Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. There are many examples for the use cases of Artificial Brain, one of which could be driverless cars. The world’s largest car makers are investing in technologies which could replace a human driver. But no matter how safe driverless cars become, the AI driver will eventually face the moral dilemma of having to decide whether to prioritize the safety of its passengers or others who might be involved in a collision. In such cases, the artificial brain can help make decisions to have more capacity to deal with these kinds of ethical conundrums.

Whatever the future holds for AI, it sure is to evolve our lives to the next level.