Science, Tech & Environment

Soon, computers will become more intelligent than us. Then what?


Scientist and futurists are speculating on the day computers could become self-aware and, subsequently, take over our lives. A computer's motherboard is pictured.


Iwan Gabovitch/Wikimedia Commons

It's been a trope in science fiction for years: someday, the computers will become self-aware and take over.

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But in 1993, the computer scientist and science fiction author Vernor Vinge wrote an academic paper in which he predicted that we were only a few decades away from what he termed "The Singularity" — the point at which scientists create computers with "greater than human intelligence."

In science fiction, this usually turns out badly for the human race. Inevitably, the computers, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, decide they don't need the humans.

But Vinge and a large cadre of influential minds in computing say what happens then will be beyond anything Hollywood can imagine. Vinge says that we shouldn't see it as humans against computers: we just need to merge our brains with computers.

"We use them simply as amplifications of our own intelligence," he says. After that, the Singularitarians believe, progress will jump at warp speed — we'll be able to cure diseases and solve the vexing problems of society. When our bodies fail, we'll upload our minds into some sort of cloud and, in a sense,  live forever.

Vinge's prediction inspired some Silicon Valley gurus to create Singularity University, where you can spend $12,000 a week to hear lectures from leading scientists in fields where knowledge is growing exponentially. Inventor Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering, and others prepare leading executives for the biotech upgrade to super brilliance. (Watch a Kurzweil lecture below.)

But Vinge's optimism is a bit more nuanced. "In a way, I regard the situation that we're facing here as scary because it is sort of the radical end point of optimism," he says. What happens if all our problems are solved? And this sort of technological immortality might not be the Heaven we imagine.

"It's what happens if you sit down and think seriously about wanting the things that humans and the human condition has always cried out for," he argues. "If you think seriously about overcoming some of those barriers, and what that would mean, that actually is scary." 

Read and listen to more about how science fiction has helped shape our world and culture in this week's edition of Studio 360.