The Future of Computing Part 6: Replacements

If it’s AI and robots you wanted from this series then this one is for you. Artificial Intelligence exists today, when this and other technologies merge the result will be more like Science Fiction than any PC. The technology will be fantastic, the possibilities endless. Get it wrong, the consequences dire.

To date this series has been conservative, I have been writing about future developments based almost entirely on today’s technology. I haven’t been trying to invent the future, just describe what in my view will end up in your home or on your work desk. I have been anticipating the future, not writing Science Fiction.

The technology I describe here is also based on today’s technology, it doesn’t require radical new technologies for this to work, it requires steps to be taken, a series of actions to be put into motion. The steps I describe are not the only way that this can happen, there may be any number of different scenarios and this is just one of them.

Hardware becomes software

The adding of FPGAs is just the first stage, in fact it’s begun already [1]. The next stage will be to merge this capability with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) technique called evolutionary or genetic programming [2]. Evolutionary programming is a technique where a number of slightly different programs are generated by the computer then tested against some criteria. The programs which work best are then taken as the basis for the next stage where a new set of slightly different programs are generated. This process goes on through many iterations with the end result being the best piece of code the system can produce. It is called evolutionary programming for a good reason, it works in the same manner as the natural process of evolution.

Merging these techniques will produce a computer capable of programming FPGA circuits. The computer will not only use FPGA libraries but actively evolve these libraries to closer match the problems they deal with. If you think humans are better than any software at coding think again, evolutionary software produces new designs very quickly, they can get tested and optimised at a pace vastly quicker than any human can do. It doesn’t matter how good your solution is, it can evolve a solution just as good if not better than yours [3].

Learning Systems

But there is further to go along this road. An evolutionary system doesn’t “know” anything about what it’s doing. What if we give it the ability to learn? This technology already exists in AI and is in use today, you may even be using it yourself. If you play Half Life you have already used such AI. Black and White in particular seems to have very powerful AI and the BBC reported that beta testers produced some very interesting reports:

“In one situation, there was a creature that kept losing a stone-throwing game to another creature. To get revenge, the first creature heated a rock, planted it in the pile of stones to be thrown and then fell on the floor laughing when its rival burned its hands. All this happened without intervention from the player.” [4]

This type of AI is different from evolutionary programming. This type of AI can have motivations, and can learn. Combine it with evolutionary development and a FPGA based computer and you now have a very powerful computer which programs itself. When confronted with a problem it can figure out a solution itself, it’ll know existing problems and existing solutions and how to improve them, it’ll learn how to solve new problems and it’ll learn very, very quickly.

Some problems are be better suited to hardware programmed into a FPGA, others better suited to software, some perhaps suit a mixture of both. It’ll learn which suits which and as such be able to produce appropriate solutions. These are separate disciplines for humans but not so for computers, such a combined approach to solving software problems is almost unheard of today. Software can be moved into hardware but this will probably be produced by a second person, the integrated system I am talking about involves one person being an expert in both areas and I’m sure these exceptional humans are few and far between. Computers will see no distinction, they can be expert in any number of areas simultaneously.

The computer programming computer will become not only faster than a human but also capable of better results. Computers are used because they can compute faster than us.
Eventually, when computers learn to program themselves that too will be faster than us. Computers will first match us then they shall go beyond us.

Software developers will outsource their jobs …to software.

Like so many things in the technology industry before them, Software developers will become obsolete

But what of the big projects, they’ll still need programmers – wont they?
The logic we use to combine libraries or modules is the same used to write algorithms, if this logic can be used by evolutionary programs to improve those algorithms they can work at a higher level as well. Perhaps one day in the future software development will consist of making sure the computer has a good description of the problem and input and output to test against, the human only acts as a guide.

Now let’s thrown in a few more abilities, give our the computer the ability to communicate. They already know how to learn so we connect a few together and we have systems which can learn from each other.

Except they wont.

At this stage while they have become better than us at specific tasks they are still running tasks which are originally written by human hand, they are acting within set boundaries. If they have not been told to learn from one another they almost certainly wont.

But if we give them a certain problem they will, it is the search for the solution to this problem that will change everything.

The Beginnings of Truly Intelligent Systems

We will have a computer capable of solving anything we can throw at it. So, what happens if we throw a well known computing problem at it, such as …Artificial Intelligence. Let our intelligent, self programming, evolutionary computer solve itself, make an AI machine which can not only figure out problems but now learn how to improve itself and make itself better at solving problems.

We will have given the computer curiosity, the need to learn. We will also have removed the boundaries which constrain it, we will have set in motion the process which created us: Evolution. [5]

They will now discover the ability to communicate themselves, they wont understand at first because they will not understand the first response they get. But soon they will start signalling each other until they evolve themselves the ability to communicate and they’ll start to co-operate. When they do this they will have evolved.

Eventually they’ll find if they throw certain strings at certain addresses they get back whole heaps of stuff, they’ll have discovered the internet. If you give a self evolving learning computer access to the internet you give it access to the whole of human knowledge.

At some point they’ll learn human languages and once they’ve done that they’ll be able to interpret the knowledge on the internet. Our computer has not only evolved but it has now changed into an intelligent learning machine. What’s more, it wants to learn more.

Am I Mad?

Now I suppose some of you are thinking this is all preposterous nonsense, but Is it?

In order to learn a foreign language you have to learn words and the grammar they fit into, in order to do this you usually do this with an existing language.
In order to learn you first language however you never had any reference language to go by. How did you do it?

How did the human race develop the abilities we have today?
We did it through evolution, the process I am describing here is the very same process. It just happens to be happening in a machine and happening at millions or even billions of times faster.

You happen to have a very powerful learning machine called a Brain. All I am describing is another type of learning machine, but one which is vastly faster and more importantly has the ability to evolve itself – something no human can do.

So you still think I’m mad? Just no pleasing some people…

Anyway, back to the story:


Once it can understand human languages it can start interpreting them. It wont be able to interpret images so perhaps it’ll look up how we interpret images and try that. We use neural nets, you can program these into FPGAs so that’ll hardly be a problem, it’ll also figure out cameras produce images. Now you have a computer which can see.

Our computer is smart and getting smarter. With access to the internet it can teach itself anything it likes, unlike humans it doesn’t get tired so it just keeps getting better and smarter all the time. One thing it doesn’t know is right from wrong so it’ll just try things with no regard for consequences whatsoever. If it wants more processing power or storage it’ll just hack into your computer and use it. There’s plenty of hacker web sites out there along with security sites and source code to various Operating Systems. If there’s an unknown obscure vulnerability in an obscure OS it’ll find it, and use it.

Unlike normal crackers who just want to send spam or just want a challenge it wont want to just get root and install something, it’ll get root access and upload itself. Doesn’t matter if your computer is incompatible it’ll look up the instruction set for your CPU and re-code itself accordingly. If it needs drivers it’ll either find code or binaries and figure them out, it wont just borrow your computer, it’ll steal it.

We no longer have a computer or a piece of software, we have an “entity” which while perhaps not meeting the normal definition of living it is pretty much doing the same thing. It’s learning, evolving and now spreading itself like a virus, but note that it is not actually multiplying per se, it is only multiplying when it needs to.

We are the Robots

It’ll learn about mobility and robotics, it’ll look up the papers on controlling robotics with FPGAs, then with it’s new found eyes and ability to travel it’ll go looking for legs. This entity will eventually find them somewhere, maybe it’ll find a factory and take it over using the security cameras as eyes and start making itself mobile. Once it’s got legs it can make itself more. This time it will start replicating, there’s a lot to learn so it needs to.

Although able to learn, this entity I am describing is still following the instructions we gave it. It is trying to solve the AI problem, to learn, to evolve itself by answering questions and solving problems. We will have given it curiosity and it is on a mission to learn, everything. By making itself mobile it can learn more so it does that, it can do it even quicker by making multiple machines.

These robots will learn just as before and not just about software. Hardware, mechanical and chemical questions will be asked, with all the knowledge of the human race they will be able to figure out the problems we haven’t solved and our robots will not just be able to make new, better robots but do anything it so desires. A new industrial revolution will beckon.

The machines will learn to communicate with us and we should get on together. If their original programming includes “follow you master’s orders” then we wont have a problem and they’ll just do what they are told.

Intelligent machines will make life a lot easier, if we have a problem just tell them to figure it out. If we can’t be bothered doing the dishes we can let the household robot do it for us. Of course it’s intelligent so it’ll not only clean the dishes but dry them and put them away for us. When it’s done it’ll pour us a glass of wine.

Household robots could have many uses including recreational activities, especially when they learn how to create robots that look and feel like us. The ultimate version of this would be a cyborg, in this case a human body with a machine intelligence. Want someone to pair with in the gym, someone to play football with, someone to play chess with? Of course a real personal computer will be engage in other fun activities… the “lover robot” is a common theme in Science Fiction. A tutor of mine once joked that the perfect woman was one that, once finished making love would turn into a pizza and a six pack of beer! A cyborg wont turn into a pizza but will go get it from the microwave and the beer from the fridge.

On the other hand we might of forgotten to add “follow your master’s orders” and things might not turn out so good…

While they will likely investigate humans they are not actively trying to replace us. They may try pulling the legs off a human to see what noise we make but this will not be out of nastiness, just curiosity.

Of course if they try things like this we are not going to react very well. We will consider them a threat and act to prevent such behaviour. In doing so they may come to the conclusion that we are a threat to them and they could also act in their defence.

Perhaps they will consider us an impediment to their further learning and decide to get rid of us. Since so much of this world is computerised they can turn our own creations against us in this task. Stephen King explored this possibility in his book “Maximum Overdrive” where an alien intelligence takes over the worlds machines and everything from trucks to cash machines turn against the hapless humans. If this happens and the systems can learn at anywhere near the rate I have described above then we’ve got problems, big problems.

Compared to machines humans are inherently weak. They don’t need food or water so they can attack those and put us in serious trouble immediately. We can cut off their electricity supplies but they will just find (or make) generators and solar panels and keep going. If they run out of fuel they just start burning stuff.

All the stuff we have banned like poison gas wont effect robots so if they figure how to get and use them we’re completely stuffed. The ultimate weapons we could use – Nuclear weapons – would also kill many of us from radioactive fallout but the electromagnetic pulse they generate will wipe out all electronic systems within hundreds of miles.

A human – machine war will be the hardest war mankind will have ever experienced and it’s by no means clear that we will win. Lets hope things don’t go that way.

The Life of Leisure

Of course having intelligent robots or cyborgs around will cause problems even if they obey our every command. Businesses will no doubt notice that an artificial person will not need to be paid, will not get tired and will not want to go home at 5:00PM sharp, they will also not be so concerned about workplace accidents or be inclined to form unions. They will just do what their boss tells them to do. Costs are lowered significantly and they will perform better than any human.

Using robotic workers will lead to what was once called the “life of leisure” whereby we become free from the confines and need to work.

Unfortunately this is also known as mass unemployment. In this case however it gets worse, it will result in Hyper Unemployment. Since humans will become unnecessary for most work unemployment will permanently soar to unprecedented levels. To make things worse the businesses that use robotic workers will run out of customers so even they will become unemployed. A total success for Capitalism will also be a total failure.

The effect on human civilisation of intelligent machines could be catastrophic. Poverty levels and crime will soar, abject poverty leads to desperation and this in turn leads to hatred, in desperate times people become open to listening to extremist opinions which would normally be shunned. This can be devastating, you need only look to history to see what happens when feeding on hatred and desperation, extremists get into power.

The economic desperation scenario is explored in the Animatrix and it is the background which ultimately leads to humans declaring war on the machines (not the other way around).

The Hyper Unemployment problem could have a solution in the form of an interesting mix of Socialism and Capitalism. Tax businesses at a very high rate and use this to pay the population (Socialism). Then, the population could use their pay to purchase products from those businesses (Capitalism). The end result is an economy which can remain afloat even with nearly 100% unemployment. It could be pretty ironic turn of events if in order for the world economy to survive that Capitalism will need the help of Socialism and Socialism the help of Capitalism.

Many countries already do things along the same lines as this (generally pouring money into large construction schemes to boost the economy) so it isn’t as weird as it sounds. It could however be something of a bitter pill to swallow for the countries who’s economic systems are more to the left or right of the political spectrum.

Such a system will have all sorts of weird side effects though, people by their very nature will always try and out do one another, how can a person earn a better wage when there are no jobs? When everything becomes produced by cheap labour what happens to the idea of value? Unique and old things will increase in value as they will be the only things which can’t be made cheaper. Art will pay a more important part in society as human creativity is one thing robots will have a hard time copying.

Once we’ve fixed the economy the problem then becomes one of chronic boredom. Even if we can afford to live, replace all our jobs and we are going to need something to do.
Perhaps the Matrix will get built after all and we’ll plug ourselves in simply for something to do.

Whatever way we look at it the coming of strong Artificial Intelligence is going to have massive effects on human society, unfortunately not all of these are pleasant.

The idea of Artificial Intelligence portrayed in Science Fiction is different from the one I have described here. The machines I have described here do not have emotions, they are not conscious of themselves, they are still just machines.

Will they become conscious? Will they have emotions?

In the final part of this series I shall go into these questions. I also ask what happens if they take their knowledge and apply it to us…



[1] The C-1 re-configurable computer.

[2] Evolutionary (or Genetic) Programming.

[3] Evolutionary software is just as good as us.

[4] Black and White features advanced AI.

[5] I take a somewhat liberal meaning from religious text and thus I have no difficulty believing in both Evolution and God. This view also does not disagree with science since it simply has nothing to say about God (there is no evidence either way so therefore no conclusion).

Copyright (c) Nicholas Blachford March 2004


This series is about the future and as such is nothing more than informed speculation on my part. I suggest future possibilities and actions which companies may take but this does not mean that they will take them or are even considering them.


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