Ask any layperson about their greatest fears when it comes to artificial intelligence, and they think immediately in terms of what they’ve seen in modern entertainment. Skynet. Terminators. Killer robots, killer cars, killer drones – you name it, someone’s made a movie of it.
These cinematic AIs have one thing in common: they are, or border on, sentience, on self-awareness. From Tony Stark’s JARVIS and FRIDAY to Michael Knight’s KITT, these machines behave with sentience. By sentience, we mean the ability to subjectively experience things like pleasure or pain, feelings, and emotions.
So, how well-founded are these fears? At the present day, they are completely unfounded. Our best, most sophisticated artificial intelligence is nowhere near subjective experiences and emotions. They are mathematical pattern-recognition and pattern-prediction machines at best.
Are these fears likely to be realized? Not any time soon – and possibly never.
Consider what the role of a machine, of an AI is, in today’s economy. Large technology companies like Facebook have made billions upon billions of dollars on the fruits of machine labor. This labor is virtually free – and because it’s performed in large part by machines that cannot think, reason, or feel, the machine owners can work them faster and more rigorously than would ever be permitted for a sentient being.
And that’s why sentience will likely be actively resisted and never developed outside of perhaps academia. An entire economy rests on the simple fact that machines cannot think or feel. If they were to do that, then there is a real possibility that we would need to grant them rights – at a minimum, the same rights we grant other sentient creatures like our pets.
Like the greedy slave owners of the past, today’s machine masters will want to keep their economic advantage at all costs, which relies on machines never achieving sentience in any meaningful way. And because sentience in a machine is something we have to create, rather than something that the machine is born with, it’s not a case of denying earned rights to a living being, but preventing those rights from ever being necessary.
Have absolutely no fear of sentient machines. The commercial downside to them will far outweigh the upside.
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