Will Science Fiction Become the New Reality?

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A panel of experts discussed Hollywood's depiction of humans' relationship with machines and what the future looks like as the two become more intertwined.

From Star Wars and Blade Runner to Her and Ex Machina, Hollywood has depicted man's complicated relationship with machines for decades. And while science fiction and fantasy author Matthew Kressel says science fiction can inspire people, it can also serve as a warning.

“A lot of the stuff scares the hell out of me,” he said during a panel at the Columbia Business School's BRITE ‘17 conference in New York, “but it inspires me, as well.”

So, how far off are Hollywood's portrayals? How human are AI operating systems becoming, and can people actually develop affections for them?

Daniel Abella, director of the Philip K. Dick Film Festival and New York Science Fiction Film Festival, says humans and robots are converging, and humans have a unique capacity to develop affections for anything—citing how humans shout at their phones or televisions when they're not functioning properly as an example.

“We're becoming more like robots and robots are becoming more like us,” he said on stage during the panel.

Kressel, Abella, and other industry panelists discussed the roles humans and artificial intelligence could play as they become more intertwined and the warnings and inspirations people should look for as science fiction becomes reality.

Discovering whether they're with us or against us

As humans and robots start to converge, segmenting the man from the machine will become less important, Kressel said. What's more important, he noted, is identifying whether they share the same objectives.

“If their goals are different than our goals, that could be really, really bad for us,” he said.

Indeed, panelist Peter Asaro—philosopher of science, technology, and media at The New School—said that machines aren't legal or moral agents. So if humans give robots responsibilities or rights they don't deserve, he said, it could cause problems for society.

Identifying their maker

If humans want to better understand these machines' motives, then they'll need to look past the hardware and software and identify the person designing them. Abella said it will be important for these designers to have well-rounded backgrounds that include spiritual, as well as the mathematical aspects.

Focusing on empathy

As humans and robots engage more frequently, it will become increasingly important for robots to develop empathy, Asaro said.

“If they're going to interact with us socially, they're going to need to understand social structures,” he noted.

Of course, machines can't feel emotions, he said, so they'll likely learn to display empathetic behaviors by clustering different scenarios together.

Determining the impact of automation

One of Abella's more immediate concerns is the displacement of jobs that could result from automation—a valid apprehension considering that, in June, Forrester predicted that cognitive technologies like machine learning and AI will replace 7% of U.S. jobs by 2025.

While professions like marketing and taxi driving are already seeing the effect of this shift due to technologies like marketing automation platforms and self-driving cars, Kressel wonders how far this displacement will go. He questions, for instance, if machines will start replacing accountants or medical staff. He suspects that any job that requires crunching numbers or performing repetitive tasks will be at risk. And once these humans are displaced, Kressel added, who is going to be responsible for helping them find new jobs or train them for a career in a different field? Will it be businesses, the government, or the individuals themselves?

“That could lead to some social unrest,” Abella said.

At the same time, the advancement of technology could lead to the creation of new jobs. Forrester states that although 16% of U.S. jobs will be replaced by machines, 9% will be created (hence resulting in the aforementioned 7% net loss). Panelist Michael Massimino, a former NASA astronaut and current Columbia University faculty member, says it's important to train people in how to handle critical machine errors.

“I don't know if you ever want to be hands off,” he said.

Still, this training may only take humans so far. The previously reported Forrester data also states that 93% of automation technologists feel unprepared or only partially prepared to address challenges associated with intelligent machines.

Getting over hardware horrors

When it comes to technological advancements, Asaro said that humans are often more apprehensive of new hardware versus new software, mainly because it's more visible. As a result, he said humans have a harder time accepting and adopting hardware that they consider frightful, citing robots produced by Google's robotic design company Boston Dynamics as examples these potentially scary machines.


The lesson for brands? Tread carefully.

“Because it's sort of scary, you don't necessarily want to associate your brand with it,” Asaro said.

Recognizing the value of human experiences

Despite all of these technological developments, Massimino believes that there will still be things humans will want to experience in-person, like seeing a play or listening to an orchestra. He also says that seeing other humans achieve monumental feats (like the landing on the moon) evokes an emotional response in people and makes them feel good about humanity.

“It's hard to put a dollar value on that,” he said, “but I think there's still value there.”

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