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Checking the rise of the machine

By Mal Fletcher - posted Friday, 28 February 2014

Machines, even the most sophisticated variety, may be wonderful servants but they would arguably make fearsome masters.

Talking about the potential mastery of machines over people used to be the stuff of nerdy science fiction. Not so much any more.

I had lunch with good friends in Munich yesterday. We were discussing the rapid developments taking place in the world of social media technologies and how they are becoming an ever more central part of human communication.


"The East German Stazi would have loved all this," one of my friends remarked. A totalitarian regime built on inspiring and maintaining fear - not just of government intrusion but of the total loss of one's secrets and the freedom to think private thoughts - would indeed have relished the ease with which we share our most intimate and immediate thoughts with the world.

The one huge difference between the world of the secret police forces of the twentieth century and that of emerging technologies is that in today's world it is not human beings with headphones that process our conversations. It is automated bots and web-based algorithms. Unless we're very careful, the age of Big Data will make it increasingly difficult to keep secrets, even of the most innocent kind.

Noted futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil predicts that by 2029 computers will be able to understand what we say, hold conversations and learn from their experience.

They will also, he adds, be able to flirt and tell jokes.

Not even the most techno-averse reader would consider this far fetched, given that yesterday's scifi is constantly morphing into today's wifi.

Kurzweil is perhaps the world's best known evangelist for an idea known as "the singularity", a point at which human biology and technology become one. This will theoretically also be the point at which we can no longer understand or predict the full potential of the machines we have built.


Indeed, at this point it is highly likely that machines will be inventing other machines without human intervention.

In our rush to develop new technologies to solve previously uncrackable problems, we need also to have a much more rigorous debate on what it means to be human. What are the faculties which, to this point in time, have made us unique on this planet?

What are the aspirations that have lifted us high, and the flaws that consistently threaten to pull us down?

How can we preserve our essential humanity and human dignity whilst developing ever more clever servant technologies?

No matter how great the challenges our planet is facing the answer cannot be the effective subjugation of the human race, or the extinction of the privacy so necessary to autonomous decision making.

We must maintain a situation where, with all the concomitant risks, human choices shape the future.

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This article was first published on 2020Plus.

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About the Author

Mal Fletcher is a media social futurist and commentator, keynote speaker, author, business leadership consultant and broadcaster currently based in London. He holds joint Australian and British citizenship.

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