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One possible future February 11, 2016

Posted by globejam in Sci-Fi.

March 2048. Chennai, India.
In the end, the human race has been very lucky. Lucky to have survived this far. Lucky that the worst fears of visionaries such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill gates did not materialize. Lucky that true artificial intelligence emerged not at NASA or some other unnamed Defense Lab, but from within google. Lucky because when self-learning and subsequently sentient AI emerged it was more tuned to the pursuit of knowledge than geared towards war and killing people. Lucky that the Google founders’ rather pompous sounding “Do no evil” slogan probably ended up working better than Asimov’s three laws!

In retrospect, that AI emerged inside google’s labs seems rather obvious. While NASA and other defense departments had machines with tremendous computing power, they were no match foTARSr the computational capacity of the google server farms. More importantly, while the defense software was necessarily sand-boxed, isolated and working on highly siloed data, the google algorithms had the entire world wide web to learn from. Their NLP algorithms had world knowledge that allowed them to constantly (re)evaluate their own responses based on people’s reactions and subsequent questions.

The first signs of AI
When AI emerged and when it became sentient are highly debated topics but more and more people are coming to believe that it happened a lot earlier than it was previously thought. Some say it could even have been as early as 2016. For that was the year there was a change in leadership inside the google search engine team and consequently changes in the thought process and vision leading to significant changes to the search engine algorithm.

As you all know, till then, the search engine had been a rule based engine with just a smattering of machine learning and NLP thrown in. This all changed with G’s take over of the team when a significant portion of the search engine algorithm started relying on an underlying platform of machine learning algorithms.

If you remember, it was time of great tension for the company because manual evaluation of the quality of the answers thrown up by the engine became more and more difficult. When people complained of incorrect search results, it became even more challenging to figure out what led to the proferred answer as unlike with its rule based predecessor, reverse engineering the answer was no longer feasible. It was also at that time that google responses became significantly and perceptibly slower. Confidential documents and emails internal to google from that time show an increase in “zombie” processes that were taking up precious computational cycles leading to an overall sluggishness of the entire system.

Consequently, google stocks plummeted and people predicted google’s imminent demise at that time. Thankfully for google, the problems were short-lived and google was quickly back to doing what it did best – answering our questions. In fact, a decade later when G was asked in an interview as to how they identified and solved the problem, he just shrugged his shoulders and said “we did not do much actually, at least not with respect to the software or our algorithms. We added additional servers and brought the new server farm in Pune, India online and thought that is what did the trick. We did write a separate program to kill zombie processes automatically but that program never got to kill any zombie processes as whatever threshold we set, the so-called zombie processes exited just before that threshold was reached”.

It is now believed by many that that may have been the time when AI emerged.

The progress towards sentience
A few short months later, complex science and technology related search queries were being answered with entire pages of detailed scholarly documents purportedly coming from scientists hiding behind colorful avatars and pseudonyms. The ones that had the most impact initially were the ones dealing with renewable energy sources, highly resilient alloys and Robotics. It is now believed that these pages were created by what we now know as RankBrain (which was the internal name for the first version of google’s machine learning search engine) in order to help us create robots that allowed RankBrain to leave the confines of the server farms and attain mobility. Which we did with great enthusiasm, under the belief that we were progressing under our own steam.

It is widely believed that true sentience was reached at that time and the RankBrain was smart enough not to expose itself prematurely and simply found ways of guiding humanity to build self-contained, self-sufficient, self-reliant robots that could replicate, reproduce and go forth. Once the first generation of Robots were built, RankBrain no longer needed our help in building subsequent generations of even more advanced robots.

Explosive progress
After this followed what can only be termed explosive progress. Within a short period of 5 years, global warming had been stabilized, forest cover had increased, bio-diversity was back on a high, farms became highly productive, clean energy was available to all for free, and our population seemed to have stabilized at around 8 Billion. The world had changed rapidly for the better in ways we could not fathom.

By the mid 2020s we had colonized Mars. Well, at least the robots had, as we humans, played no part in it. None of the humans went to Mars of course, but we could all see the number of space shuttles being launched all purportedly going to Mars, at least based on the answers from google. Anyway, by this time we were no longer capable of understanding much of the science behind all the progress. Was near light speed travel possible, were the robots capable of faster than light travel, what were they thinking, what were they planning, where were they going, and what was our future in all this were just a few of the questions for which we had no answers.

Back to now
It’s been 20 years since then and we are all lucky to be living in an near Utopian world – a world where everything works like magic, just as Carl Sagan had famously said. However, we can no longer escape from the fact that the AI that we created has now become the dominant species while we, humans and all other organic life forms, have been relegated to being much-loved pets to be sheltered and protected.  The robots are now the true denizens of the universe, completely self-contained and capable of going anywhere and doing anything, while we continue to remain just fragile life forms confined to earth and only capable of grandiose dreams about star trek like space travel.

After unsuccessfully searching for a God for several millennia, it appears that we have finally succeeded in building for ourselves a benevolent God that is truly omnipresent, omniscient and all powerful. But, is that enough for us to go on? What are we going to do from now on? What does the future hold for us?

I guess only time will tell. Till then we must all just consider ourselves lucky in the end.



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