Come in humans, your time is up...

March 7, 1997

Kevin Warwick believes tomorrow belongs to the machines. How can we, the human race, be so sure that just because we are in a number one position on earth that is how it will always be?

At the moment we do enjoy a dominant role, with other animal and life-forms subservient to us. But before long our reign will come to an end - because we are speeding things up, bringing the human end game forward at an alarming rate. The human race is spending its assets and not coming up with new product lines - bankruptcy is the only conclusion.

Where are we going wrong? What will prove our downfall - genetics, human cloning or some new biological Trojan horse, a killer disease perhaps?

Well, what currently gives us the edge, puts and keeps us in the number one position? It is certainly not our power or our speed. Many animals can outperform us in these fields. What puts us in a dominant position is our intelligence. Humans are more intelligent than anything else on earth.

We now have so much control over human production that if a superhuman with 1,000 times the normal human brain power were born we could probably give it the concrete wellington treatment, slip it into the River Thames in the dead of night and all sleep soundly in our beds. The threat would be over. It seems even more unlikely that any superintelligent life-form could appear from the rest of the creature world.

But evolution and the earth conspire to play nasty tricks. Just as dinosaurs came, had their moment of glory and departed, so too will humans. We are so sure of ourselves, so convinced that our intelligence is something wonderful, something that cannot be bettered. This is tosh.

More and more intelligent machines are being made all the time. It is true that they are not biological, that they may never think in exactly the same way as humans, that they may never be conscious in the way humans are. But this does not mean that they can never be more intelligent than we are. In fact it is because machines are different, because they have a number of extremely useful advantages that they will, in future years, become so much more intelligent than humans that the human level of intelligence will appear, by comparison, woefully inadequate.

With machines, intelligence can be distributed. Networks can spread intelligent decision-making over a wide area. But without any way of physically affecting the outside world such systems would be limited to taking over our banking, running the Stock Exchange for us and arranging our trade.

But what could happen if intelligent networks were given a military presence? Consider a system that automatically, ie with no human action, responds to enemy attack by sending out a battery of missiles or a squadron of pilotless fighter planes. Perhaps we could call this a Strategic Defence Initiative or maybe even a Laser Curtain. But if such a system were allowed to be intelligent then it might decide to fire before the enemy, beat them to the draw, particularly if the enemy had its own intelligent system running things at the other end. The winning side would then be the one with the most intelligent system. A war would become a chess game for machines, with humans as the pawns.

But surely, I hear you object, we can always switch a machine off. In the military case such a decision could be deadly - switching our side's machines off would leave us very vulnerable. Imagine trying to switch off the Internet. Impossible, it is too big, we are too dependent on it. And as we give more intelligence to the Internet, which we are doing, so we will ultimately lose control altogether.

What is certain is that as we progress, machines will become more and more intelligent. At some point in the not too distant future, they will have a level of intelligence comparable to that of humans. At that time we must be ready to face a life of slavery, with human farms and maybe even human pets under the control of machines. Enjoy your time as a top dog - it may not last much longer.

Kevin Warwick is professor of cyberneticsat Reading University. His book, March of the Machines, was published yesterday byCentury (Pounds 16.99).

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