Centaurs Are Real, and You Can Be One
Earlier this year, Elon Musk said that humans need to become cyborgs, or we’d risk total annihilation in the inevitable robot uprising. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent my whole life waiting for the chance to move my consciousness into a robot body, so I’ve been onboard this hype train before it even entered the station.
Of course, Musk’s statement isn’t based on the enthusiastic desire I hold for a fully customizable body. It’s not even all that positive of a sentiment; the statement is a warning that technology is advancing at an incredible rate, and if we’re not careful, it’ll drive us to ruin. Autonomous cars, something Musk’s been working on himself, are one such example of a technology threatening to overtake us; an estimated 4 million jobs will be impacted by the rise of self-driving cars.
Now, the fear of losing jobs and the end of businesses is nothing new. In the 1800s, textile workers, later known as the Luddites, destroyed power looms and spinning frames out of the fear that technology would render their skills obsolete. Today, we have Silicon Valley experts telling us that if we don’t evolve with technology, we’re going to become obsolete. It’s the same type of story, just hundreds of years in the future.
You can smash the machines all you want, but you will never smash progress.
Personally, I find this sort of talk to be alarmist. In the past, many of the products we consumed were made piece by piece, with workers working on assembly lines, doing repetitive tasks over and over again all day long. Jobs like this are often unpleasant, dangerous, or just plain monotonous, which, as I’ve mentioned in the past, leads to low employee engagement and high turnover rates. This is bad for employers, so investing in a robot, ostensibly, is a wise decision.
Not only that, but jobs that are considered highly automatable are often repetitive jobs in controlled environments, such as manufacturing jobs, or jobs in warehouses or farming. This changes how the job is performed, but like the power looms of the past, people are still needed to run the machines.
For example, we have used the word cyborg to describe telemarketers who use a soundboard to communicate with potential customers in order to streamline their calls and convey information correctly. We even brought cyborgs up in our post about 3D printing. Although we may not have technology implanted in our bodies (although RFID microchip implants do exist), are we not already close to being the cyborgs Musk wants us to become?
I can see where he’s coming from, however. Humans can be very resistant to change, and there are many people who remember the days before technology was so accessible and commonplace. It may take time for some decision makers to adopt technology fully, but in the meantime, there are many early adopters laying down the groundwork for advancement.
For example, I discussed smart cities back in January, and how New York is leading the way towards a fully integrated society despite the concerns of naysayers. They are not alone. Not only are other cities working towards adopting smart technology, but so are many industries. (Hint: This is where those centaurs come in.)
Chess pros Vladimir Kramnik and Vishy Anand face off with the help of computers
The centaur model first emerged in the world of competitive chess. You’ve probably heard the story of how IBM’s DeepBlue defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, but what you might not have heard of is what happened afterward. Kasparov, as it turned out, knew it was only a matter of time before computers could defeat humans at chess, and while he was disheartened at the moment of loss, he was also inspired.
“What if,” he thought, “instead of competing against each other, humans and computers collaborated?”
One of the main fears of anti-automation voices is that machines will operate independently, or in a “black box” sort of way: questions in, answers out. This is not the ideal that many innovators are striving for, however. Paul Scharre, head of the Center for a New American Security, says “It’s actually not an either-or.” The centaur model instead works to combine “machine precision and reliability, human robustness and flexibility,” in hopes of building more robust systems that are equally capable of high and low level thinking.
The military in particular is looking at centaur technology in order to augment their forces. The hope is that things such as remotely controlled drones, exo-suits, and mini-robots will make the military not only safer for its soldiers, but better overall. And while some aspects (such as laser guided defense missiles or cybersecurity) must be automated, the military is insistent on maintaining the human aspect of their operations.
It’s the human component that enables machines to think creatively; although machine learning enables computers to recognise patterns and make decisions based on them, their decisions are still based in data and predictability. For example, DeepDream may be able to create some of the most surreal images out there, but it does so by finding shapes and patterns in white noise, then by applying that pattern to the page over and over and over again, until the page is full. A human can do that too, but a human might also decide to reverse the pattern in one corner, just to introduce a little chaos into the mix.
This is what Scharre believes will set America’s defense department apart from other countries. Regardless of your opinions on it, war and the military have always been good for innovation, and Obama’s Third Offset strategy looked poised to push centaur modeling and cyborg technology into greater focus. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say if the Trump Administration will continue their funding, or if they’ll let it slowly die out through neglect. Right now, it seems as if the administration is focusing on building up the size of the military, which means it’s leaning towards neglect, but with potential international conflicts on the horizon, we might still see some work towards developing this type of new technology.
Or, we could rely on Elon Musk, who, despite all his doomsday predictions and general nay-saying, is always pushing for innovation across his various companies.
But we’ll talk more about him, later.
For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the centaur model. Do you think it’s better or worse than the idea of full cyborg integration? Where else do you see it coming into play? Are you using it today without knowing? Leave a comment below and share around.