My heart sank when I noticed that the most e-mailed story on the BBC News website today is one entitled, ‘Machines to match man by 2029‘.
In summary, the article briefly states that:
“Machines will achieve human-level artificial intelligence by 2029, a leading US inventor has predicted.
Humanity is on the brink of advances that will see tiny robots implanted in people’s brains to make them more intelligent, said Ray Kurzweil.
The engineer believes machines and humans will eventually merge through devices implanted in the body to boost intelligence and health.
“It’s really part of our civilisation,” Mr Kurzweil explained.”
Whilst I think that the suggestion that machines and humans merging really is ‘part of our civilisation’ may be open to some serious question, the piece reminded me of a song by one of Britain’s finest lyricists of the past twenty years, Jarvis Cocker.
On Pulp’s 1998 album, ‘This is Hardcore’, Cocker’s lyrics offered a damning critique of fame from the point of view of someone who desperately craved it, and then on achieving it, realised that it was far from what he actually wanted.
On one track in particular, ‘Glory Days’, Cocker sums up something that I presume many other people of my age feel about the world today (and possibly about Kurzwells’s observations). When I was a child in the 1970s, I remember how various programmes including both ‘Blue Peter’ and ‘Tomorrow’s World’ would regularly feature items about how we would all be living at the turn of the century. Mock-ups of 21st century life would regularly show us having jet-packs, traveling via monorails, living in hi-tech houses that would be voice controlled, and sporting the latest space-age clothes made from fibres such as lycra (or at least, that’s what the fibres looked like). Now that we are in 2008, we couldn’t be farther from reality. Quite thankfully in the latter case what with the growing levels of obesity.
So when Cocker wrote that:
“…we were brought up on the Space-Race, now they expect you to clean toilets,
When you have seen how big the world is how can you make do with this?
If you want me I’ll be sleeping in – sleeping in throughout these glory days…”
I fully identify with what he is saying. Despite all the ‘progress’ and ‘advancements’ we have made since the 1970s (some of which are debatable on a range of levels), we never get beyond the fact that we still have to (metaphorically for some of us at least) clean the toilets. We can never – despite the hi-tech sheen and gloss – remove those gritty realities of our life.
So whether Kurzwell is right or not about having “tiny robots implanted in people’s brains”, the toilets will still need to be cleaned and for those that have to do this – for those at the bottom of the socio-economic pile – I doubt whether anything will change. Life will still be as gritty and real as it has always been.
I guess that in a way, this type of story sums up two things about us as a people and a society. The first is that we live with the expectation that through technological ‘advances’, humanity will ‘progress’ (and for ‘progress’, read improve).
Second, that we have an unquestionable ‘belief’ in science and progress in ways that if someone had a similar ‘belief’ in religion for example, would contemporarily be derided.
Given that “I was brought up on the Space-Race”, when it comes to being implanted with the tiny robots, “If you want me I’ll be sleeping in…”.