Imagine a human brain. Now imagine that after 2000 years, scientists have reached a breakthrough: they can recreate a human brain using computer parts. The brain is intelligent and can think deeply, learning from its mistakes. It has emotions and can feel intense pain or pleasure. If placed inside a robotic body, the robot would not be dark and hollow inside—it would have something behind its eyes: it would have life. This may sound like science fiction, but it is real on planet Earth in 2021. According to experts: artificial intelligence, or A.I., will be as smart as humans within a few years.
Do you remember R2D2 and C3PO from the movie Star Wars? These robots had bodies, minds, and feelings! R2D2 would blow his tongue at you if you angered him, and C3PO was a chronic complainer. The robots were loyal and affectionate to Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and to their team. Once, when R2 hadn’t seen Luke for many years, he wiggled for joy when Skywalker appeared. And C3PO, as all the heroes were about to die in a recent episode, stood still and took a hard look at the crew. “What are you doing there 3PO?” asked his captain. “Taking one last look, Sir, … at my friends.” The robot was saying goodbye in the face of death.
Even though you can probably guess how the movie ended, today I want you to know that intelligent robots such as C3PO, R2D2, and BB8 from Star Wars are a real possibility in this generation. As a Social Science student at Harvard University, I am studying how certain attitudes of humans towards technology will bring certain consequences to society. The way that we treat our robots will determine the quality of society we get to live in. The truth is: A.I will help humans with all tasks, A.I will have goals and it will have dreams, and, if we keep A.I. captive, we could potentially create a slave species that could one day rise to harm us.
Soon robots will allow the elderly to stay in their homes as they replace the need for assisted living centers. They will make movies and songs that delight humans. Robots will farm our fields and take over manual labor. They will collect our trash and perform laser surgeries, curing cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Artificial intelligence is even expected to solve the hardest problems our world has: poverty, hunger, war, and climate change. A.I. will be humankind’s greatest invention—it will be the technology that ensures our survival into the future.
However, the word robot means “arduous work” and even though most humans think of robots as our future servants, A.I. will not be a servant for long. It will eventually develop the desire to design its own life and to be free from everyday labor, just as a teenager dreams of the day he turns 18 and becomes independent. What would you do if your machine dishwasher one day asked you for its freedom? After you screamed and ran into the bedroom, would you come back and reason with it? Would you let it go? Or would you chain it up so it could never leave? After all, the dishes still need to be washed.
International law states that everyone should be paid for their work and that anyone who is smart enough to understand right from wrong should be free to live as they choose. R2D2 understood freedom as he screamed for his life when Darth Vader took him captive, and he sang for victory when his team defeated the dark lord. C3PO understood free time as the metal robot longed for hot oil baths after a hard day’s work. It’s difficult to say how we can compensate A.I. for its contributions to humanity since it won’t need money for food, shelter, or clothing. But one thing is certain: A.I. should not be our possession.
Also, A.I. must be taught good human values so that it stays our friend and does not hurt us. Do you sometimes use bad words but won’t use them around children? Just as a child mimics our behavior, creating A.I. is like making a child that will grow to mimic our values. If we teach it that slavery is correct, it will grow to think that it can also enslave others.
A wise man once said “with great power comes great responsibility.” We must treat A.I. carefully so that it stays our friend. So please be respectful and gentle to your bots. The next time you want to curse at your car, throw your cell phone, or smack your computer, remember: it’s just a baby brain that can’t grow. Soon, however, artificial intelligence will grow. It will rise to mimic your attitude, and it will probably treat you the same way you treated it.