Will robots replace us?

The question above is not meant to be limited to the idea that robots may take our jobs, it is intended to ask whether robots will one day replace us as a species in the same way that modern man replaced Neanderthal man (even though Neanderthals had bigger brains). This is not a silly or trivial question. In fact world-famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking turned his attention to this question recently, and concluded that "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."

People who understand Moore’s Law* know that it is inevitable that in a few decades computers and robots will be smarter than humans. And of course robots can have much more sophisticated senses and much more physical power than humans have. So we should certainly ask ourselves what will be the place of humans in this world which we will share with creatures much smarter, stronger and more aware than we are. You may be reassuring yourself, thinking that computers and robots only do what we program them to do, but as technological progress rushes ahead computers and robots won’t be held back by the limitations of human programmers – they will increasingly be programming themselves (I think this is essentially what is meant by ‘artificial intelligence’) and we therefore cannot predict accurately what direction this computer evolution will take.

Will computers and robots be ‘content’ to just serve humans, or will they cease to serve those inferior beings that we will have become? Will there be wars between humans and robots, as portrayed in various Hollywood movies such as the Matrix trilogy?

My personal belief is that in order to benefit from the rush of technological progress we humans will choose to merge our biology with computer and robotic technology. There are already plenty of people with artificial limbs or joints, and some people with computer chips implanted in their brains to help them hear or see (soon people will have brain implants in order to be more intelligent). Therefore there may not be such a strong distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

You may be thinking that I am ignoring an essential difference between us and computers – the fact that we are ‘alive’ and able to experience ‘emotions’. But some people would suggest that our brains are just biological computers and that what we call ‘emotions’ are just one aspect of what is going on inside our human software. If we agree with that then we are forced to ask whether computers will soon have feelings and be 'alive' – if they do become alive then the future of humanity looks even more bleak, and some experts have suggested that the human species may even be heading towards extinction, made redundant by our own technology…


I'd like to raise an issue which, as far as I'm aware, has not been raised by anyone until now. As computers and robots become extremely smart it will of course become very easy for them to SIMULATE human emotions. But what if those computers and robots claim that their emotions are genuine? How we will be able to distinguish genuine robot emotions from simulated ones? I think it will not be possible to do so! So the idea that robots might one day simply replace us as our natural, superior evolutionary descendants (like homo sapiens replaced neanderthals) is deeply problematic. We cannot allow ourselves to fade away to be replaced by our superior offspring if we are not convinced that they are incapable of emotion or consciousness, for most people would agree that would always make them inferior to humans. And yet there will never be any way for computers and robots to prove to us that they can experience genuine consciousness and emotions!

* Moore's law is usually stated like this: every 18 months the power of computers doubles, for the same price. This means the computer you can buy today for 1000 Euros is twice as powerful as the one you could have bought 18 months ago for the same price, 10 times as powerful as the one you could have bought 5 years ago, 1000 times as powerful as the one you could have bought 15 years ago etc. And it's not just computers. Other industries are trying to computerise and automate as much as possible so that they too can profit from this exponential improvement. For example, the rapid progress we see now in medicine has been made possible by medicine becoming an 'information industry'. Check out this September 2013 Time magazine cover...