Humans, Machines and Armageddon

There are many things that could severely affect humanity or even wipe us out.

So there is lot of speculation and fear about our future.

One fear is that our developments in technology could be our undoing. And that is what I will discuss in this talk.

But how far into the future can we expect to see. There are pitfalls in forecasting even for futures as near as a decade or two. With new technologies, the speed of invention and innovation often depends on unforseen obstacles and breakthroughs. For a few years in the 1970s I was a member of a think tank that was looking into the future of telecommunications in Australia. One forecast relating to optic fibres was that by the year 2000 communication services would be provided by "one fibre per subscriber". The NBN is unlikely to achieve a nationwide shared fibre by 2020. But on the other hand, no one then had dreamt that mobile telephones would ever do all the things that they now do. And nuclear fusion as a source of cheap clean electricity generation has been 30 years in the future for about 50 years. So futures are always uncertain.


But several famous people, including Stephen Hawking, fear the worst. Their greatest fears concern information technology. I see three possible adverse outcomes from this.

The first possibility is that algorithms will replace humans in many kinds of jobs.

An algorithm is like a recipe. It sets out a series of processes that will perform some specific task. Computer programs are algorithms. They perform all sorts of tasks, from the simple to the complex, such as calculating, collecting information, analysing information, making decisions, controlling production processes and controlling administrative processes. The apps on your smartphone are algorithms.

It is feared that widespread use of algorithms will replace almost every job that involves any kind of intellectual activity. The remaining jobs would mostly be in lower paying occupations.


The second possibility is that machines will take over.

Computers will become much more intelligent than humans in every way, will become self-sufficient, will supersede humans as the dominant intelligence on Earth, and, maybe, eliminate us


The third possibility is that humans will unintentionally or deliberately cause their powerful intelligent machines to severely damage or destroy the natural environment, the infrastructure and/or humanity.

Something like this has happened many times on a small scale, when the down side of some kind of technology began to take effect. The extent and the seriousness of this possibility have increased in step with the increasing power of the new technologies and with the increases in population. The situation is now looking dangerous and irreversible.

These three possibilities could all be happening at the same time.


Before continuing, I will repeat that I am discussing only the consequences of using our own technologies, not what the microorganisms, or the planet, or the rest of the universe might do to us.

Of course, in addition to the pessimists, there are plenty of optimists who have their reasons for thinking our future will be very good. So, who are right, the pessimists and the optimists?


Significant Issues

The most significant issues in helping us to guess what might happen, at least in the short term, are probably:

Objectives and Intentions

Human objectives and intentions are personal, commercial, national or religious. They can be benevolent, cooperative, competitive, antagonistic, malicious and aggressive. Each new generation has its own slant on what is appropriate behaviour, and it produces increasingly powerful machines to help achieve its particular range of intentions. We can only hope for increasing benevolence and cooperation and much less malice and aggression.

Some machines already have simple kinds of intentions, related to the purposes for which they were designed. Some future machines might be provided with the equivalent of the full range of human intentions.


Present and Future Capabilities

The relevant basic differences between humans and machines are:



Present machines surpass human brains in many ways. Human brains surpass present machines in very many ways.

The intelligence of humans differs from that of machines in at least four ways:


Computers can contain very large quantities of information, which they can process very much more quickly than humans – sorting and analysing data, and performing huge complex mathematical calculations. On request, search engines such as Google very quickly select and display enormous lists of specific detailed information from a store of billions of items. This far surpasses what any individual human can do. These capabilities were, of course, put into the computers by humans and are continually revised by humans.

Also, computers can learn such things as the rules of games or the required steps of a process by analysing large numbers of details of actual performances. They also learn by trial and error. This, plus their much greater processing speed, enables them to defeat champion players at complex board games such as chess.

Computers can learn to recognise individual people irrespective of the angle they are viewed from, and can distinguish between live people and pictures or models. Some can discern subtle changes of moods and other conditions.

Computers have composed music and painted pictures that some humans have admired. As far as I know, none have been ranked alongside the notable human composers or painters.

There is active research to give machines all the intelligence and versatility of human brains, using data supplied by humans, and by other computers, and by the inputs from microphones, camcorders and other tools for sensing their environments. In theory, such computers could perform any intellectual task as needed, including perceiving the need to do it, and do it better than humans. In practice, before that happens, present technologies will reach a physical limit in computing capabilities and convenience of use, as their requirements of size and complexity increase.



However, it is expected that new technologies that use light instead of electrons will make computers faster, and require less space and emit much less heat. Also, computing capacity and intelligence might be greatly increased by quantum computing. This is a fundamentally different technology. At present it must operate at very low temperatures, which requires a lot of additional energy, and could mean that such machines would not be very mobile unless mounted on ships, trucks or large aircraft. Some developers think that large quantum computers will be in use in a couple of years. Others are much less optimistic.

Science fiction has featured robots that are indistinguishable from humans and are independently able to act like humans. They are controlled by computers inside their bodies and have their own power supply. They are depicted as friends, or servants or enemies of humans. One scenario is that they are the machines that are going to replace us. Science fiction has often been prophetic, but a lot of major breakthroughs would be needed before anything like this kind of robot could be developed.


However, the computers we are most familiar with, and which most people use many times a day, are small – smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers. Almost all of them are connected to big powerful remote machines via the Internet, and have access to enormous amounts of the information that the big machines contain, that is, to nearly everything that humanity thinks it knows.

Future algorithms and autonomous machines could usethis same body of information for their own purposes.

Also, most small personal computers contain a lot of their owners’ personal details. The big machines have access to this information, and it is already being used it for subversive and aggressive purposes. Hackers also access it.

All computer systems are constructed by humans, but once they are installed it is often hard to know precisely what they are doing and how they are doing it. The bigger and more complex they are, the harder it is to know. The significance of this is that these systems control very complex or very large processes, such as trading on the stock exchange, or handling money, or selecting the answers in search engines, or monitoring inputs to social media. Sometimes such systems go inexplicably wrong.



Humans have very flexible and adaptive intellects. They can negotiate a variety of environments, both physical and social. They have their likes and dislikes, and ways of trying to satisfy their likes and avoid the dislikes. And they have emotional relationships with people, animals, objects and places. They surpass present-day computers in all of these abilities.

Human emotions are the greatest influences on their thinking. Humans also have whims, which often make their thinking and their wishes and their actions unpredictable. There is no obvious advantage in making machines emotional or subject to whims, and it could interfere with their reliability. In some contexts, emotions could give humans an advantage over machines because emotions produce determination, resourcefulness and unpredictability.

Emotions can also lead humans to do things that reason tells them are unwise, and to neglect doing what reason tells should be done.


Humans are already being enhanced by the use of prostheses, that is, by manufactured devices that are attached to or implanted in their bodies. Prostheses, such as pacemakers, and replacement organs that are artificially grown from cells from the body, can compensate for deteriorations and defects in their bodies. Also, they can provide abilities that the human body does not provide and can modify some kinds of brain functioning.

Some scientists expect new developments will greatly increase human brainpower, physical power and health. But it would be mainly the richer minorities who had access to these enhancements.

These enhancements might not alleviate psychological issues, relating to differences of belief, socio-economic status, and preferences of lifestyles, that cause antagonism and disruption within and between human societies.


The acquisition of information by brains, and its transfer between brains, is slow and incremental. But very fast total transfer of information is possible between machines.


All this might look bad for us. But, on the other hand, all of the kinds of organisms on Earth have managed to survive and reproduce without needing the huge abilities that computers have. By necessity, all organisms have an intrinsic urge to find nourishment, to secure their safety and to reproduce. All organisms are the products of a process that has adapted them to be able to live in a particular kind of environment.

And all computers and other machines are the products of humans, who use them for human purposes, good or bad.



Physical Strength and Dexterity

Some machines have enormously greater physical strength and capability than any living organism on earth. This relates to abilities to lift, push, pull, hit and move quickly, all of which humans can do, and to fly, which humans cannot do. Some machines are a lot harder to immobilise or destroy than humans. Some machines can perform much more precise tasks than the human hand.

But no single device can yet equal the ability of the human hand in performing the complex and diverse range of manipulative tasks that most of us do every day, or to devise and perform the appropriate manipulation for an unexpected task. Perhaps someday some computer might.


Production and Reproduction

Nature has made the very complex process of reproduction of all organisms universally achievable.

Could machines reproduce themselves? No.


While algorithms can supervise complex management routines, it would not be feasible even for extremely clever and capable machines, to be able to mine and refine the necessary minerals, process all the materials into forms necessary for assembly, design the assembly of every kind of component, and then assemble and test a new machine. There would need to be very many different kinds of computers that were already specifically programmed for each process, and they would need to have been tried out to ensure that the programs had no defects. Perhaps some thoughtless genius might make such machines, but the range and types of processes would be so enormous that it would be quite impracticable, particularly when the inevitable unexpected events happened.

Perhaps machines might enslave humans to do some of the work for them. But there would be comparatively very few super smart machines, and there are so many humans, so sabotage should be able to stop hostile computers from manufacturing copies of themselves.



Energy requirements and supplies

Machines, and particularly computers, need a specific steady reliable power supply.

Humans need frequent nourishment, sleep, social contact and grooming. But they have an enormous choice of food from a very diverse range of sources of supply. And their requirements are not stringent.

Large computers use very much more energy than humans when doing comparable processing of information. The energy used in getting rid of the heat makes computers even less efficient. Even desktop computers use more energy and a lot more space than human brains.

Energy and space requirements need not be an issue for machines that don’t move. Autonomous machines in vehicles would use the vehicles’ power sources, but might need large vehicles to hold them.

I think it will be a long time before the energy and space problems are solved for humanoid robots.


How Many and how Diverse?

There are now probably more computers than there are people. Smartphones, cameras, television sets, many industrial, scientific and medical devices, and most refrigerators and washing machines and vehicles contain computers. Some of these spy on us, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of trying to sell us things or in the name of national security. But we don’t have much to fear from them.

Most supercomputers are used for very specific purposes. There are probably hundreds of thousands of them worldwide. Very few are mobile.

Most humans are mobile, diverse in their abilities, resilient, imaginative and inventive. They are also adaptable to a very wide range of conditions and environments.



What Does All This Say about the Three Fears Concerning Machines and Humanity?

1 Algorithms

Algorithms have already been taking over jobs from humans. It is fairly certain that they will increasingly be used by individual humans and by organisations to take over many more intellectual functions such as:

This would be cheaper, quicker and more reliable than using humans. Overall this would make the society economically richer, but it would cause massive losses of jobs in many fields of activity.

These algorithms will be used, directly or indirectly, to serve humans, who will have to pay directly or indirectly for the services. But how would there be enough people who still have jobs to pay for them, after all these job losses?


All new technology creates new jobs as well as job losses. Some of the new jobs will be in creating new algorithms, servicing the new algorithms, and correcting glitches in existing algorithms. (Algorithms can go destructively wrong, as in some associated with trading on the stock market and with Centrelink.)

But also, human emotions, curiosity, impatience, aspirations and whims will always make us want new and better things. There have always been new things for humans to devise and deliver to accommodate such demands. So there will be some jobs arising from this. There will also be jobs in inventing unexpected new kinds of things that will create new demands.

Every society, irrespective of the technology it uses, has to develop some kind of balance between the cost of providing goods and services and the ability of the users to pay for them. A crucial factor is the proportion of the economy that is displaced by the new technology, in comparison to the proportion created by it. The nature of the new technology usually determines whether some sections of the society are able to exploit any changes, at the expense of other citizens. So the owners of the machines are likely to have increased power and may subjugate the majority of humanity.

If incomes were distributed reasonably fairly, most people should be able to live comfortably and have a lot of leisure time, because of the total increased value of the new algorithms.

Addressing this is a social issue that all societies have had to face whenever there have been significant changes in technology. Some societies will handle it better than others. But humanity will continue.



2. Machines Will Supplant Humans

We now shift from machines being used by humans in a way that might destroy humanity, to machines becoming autonomous and capable and willing to displace humanity.

Computers already have programs that provide something like intentions, and instructions for fulfilling those intentions. For computers to be able to generate their own intentions they would need to be able to identify new needs or threats or ambitions, and address them by generating plans and having a compulsion to act. We might wonder who would give machines intentions of controlling or displacing us. But don’t discount malevolent geniuses.

However, there would be comparatively very few super-smart machines, which could not reproduce themselves, and only a few of them would be able to take hostile action against humans. There might be heavily armed very intelligent autonomous self-driving cars or aircraft that could be fearsome opponents, but they would be on both sides of the conflict.



3 Actions of people

Optimistic futurists describe all of the wonders that new technologies will bring. Their futures will transform the world we live in and will create great enhancements to our bodies and minds, and also to our wealth.




Historical statistics show that humans have continually made advances in their wellbeing over at least the past few millenniums. These advances relate to caring for each other, to abilities in healing, to knowledge about the workings of nature and societies, to providing facilities that make life safer, more comfortable and more affluent, and to the depth and universality of education. Futurists also point to evidence that the proportionate amount of warfare and conflict throughout the world has been continually decreasing, despite the current presence of the international tension and conflict in many countries. They expect that warfare will continue to decrease.

Humanity, they say, will become more peaceful and more responsible about caring for its members and the environment. We might not think that is true, but we know how uncaring humanity has been in the past. Pessimists might not accept that the improved behaviour will necessarily be passed on to future generations.


The pessimistic futurists point to human irrationality, human greed, human jealously and passionate beliefs about religion and morality. There is no shortage of examples, past and present, of all of these human characteristics and their consequences.

Currently, humans are causing:

The pessimists worry that the increased powers of future machines, and the ignorant and uncaring habits of humans, will greatly exacerbate the damage to the sustainability of life.


With good will, and with greater understanding of the issues, and careful planning, humans could start to improve the situation. But despite the continuing public declarations, there is as yet no sign of anything like adequate will, or understanding or planning. The main reason for this is that the way we live our lives is dependent on the sophisticated technologies we have built, which are also the causes of the degradation of the environment that we depend on for our existence. It will be extremely difficult to turn around our lifestyles sufficiently and in time to avoid some kind of catastrophe, and at the same time maintain a workable social and economic structure. Any efforts to succeed in this will be disrupted by increasing global warming, and pollution etc., to say nothing of vigorous political opposition.




There is also the likelihood that when more people become more knowledgeable, and machines become more powerful and intelligent, then hostile individuals and groups will have greater opportunities to cause severe damage to communities, irrespective of where the perpetrators and victims are located. In a world already stressed by a damaged environment, this could be the final straw. Our increasingly interconnected society is vulnerable.


Human actions that degrade the conditions that sustain human life will probably have less impact on machines, which will be designed to cope with their environments.



What is the likelihood of the various expectations?

History supports the optimists. There is a saying that each generation tries to make life impossible for the following generation, but it never succeeds. Perhaps no generation has deliberately tried to do this, but humanity has continually introduced new technologies that at first seem successful but later show their downsides.

But we have continued to proliferate, grow richer and live longer. Will human ingenuity save us again, or has the luck have run out?

Humanity will decide how it handles the issue of algorithms displacing humans from their jobs. Algorithms make societies more productive, so we should expect richer lives. At the worst, algorithms will just cause the same kind of displacement as previous innovations.


Some machines will become more intelligent than humans in most respects. But the limitations of such machines would prevent them from replacing or destroying humanity. Sheer intelligence is not enough. The world’s greatest geniuses are not also the leaders of the world. And if the machines were so smart, they should value what they get from human help.

There are so many more humans, many of whom would be vigilantly watching all computer developments..

So I don’t share the fears of Hawking and the others. I think we would be quite capable of stopping hostile machines from wiping us out.


If machines were to bring about a total calamity, I think the most likely cause would be the direct or indirect use by humans of their technologies, both deliberately and thoughtlessly. The collapse of societies has already happened this way many times at a local scale, often in conjunction with local environmental changes.

Societies have often been destroyed by warfare and by being supplanted by more powerful societies. Weapons continually become increasingly powerful with greater range and intelligence. Warfare and colonisation causes famine by disrupting the environment. And it is easy to forget how completely we depend on the environment. It is the ultimate source of all of our food, no matter how indirect the process might be between the original production and the eating.

The situation would be made worse by the unrest caused by jobs being taken over by algorithms, and by hostile super-intelligent machines, and by other things humanity is doing.


Despite all this, I don’t think it is inevitable that humanity will be entirely destroyed by its machines, particularly now that there are so many of us, and we are very diverse and adaptable and have so many smart computers to help us.

But it is impossible to know what humans are going to do next.