Rise of the Machines

The complex relationship between humans and technology has been a constant feature of modern life: from real-life protests during the Industrial Revolution in the seventeenth century, to the imaginary worlds of early science fiction novels of the late nineteenth century and movies in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. During this time, technology has divided us into two basic groups: those who think technology will revolutionize humanity in a positive way and those who believe it will bring about our downfall.

One area where technology could have a positive impact is human evolution. Life forms have evolved over millions of years, surviving by constantly adapting to environmental changes. However, the conditions for continuing human evolutionary change are beginning to crumble away. Humans have colonized most parts of the world and have become extremely mobile, thus limiting opportunities for human genes to develop, filter, and mutate-all of which is necessary for us to keep up with environmental changes. Some scientists believe that technology has the power to overcome this. They say that at some point, human biology and machine technology will merge, thus allowing human evolution to continue forever.

In 2009, the case of an American army sergeant who lost his leg in the Afghan war was publicized. He was fitted with a leg that contains a computerized (or bionic) knee that is able to monitor and adjust its own movement. In the same year, doctors implanted electronic devices into the eyes of a U.K. man who had been blind for thirty years. These high-tech receivers have enabled him to see the outlines of objects and to read text. Other exciting new possibilities include contact lenses that enable wearers to see computer displays and computer chips that could replace the part of the brain that stores short-term memories.

A thornier vision of future human technology relationships is based less on partnerships and more on technology taking over. For example, some writers refer to an idea called "the technological singularity." This is the point when computers with sufficient intelligence are able to create even better, faster, more intelligent machines than humans would ever be capable of creating. This development of artifcial intelligence (AI) would be beyond the control and understanding of human creators and could mark the beginning of our end.

However, the development of more advanced computer intelligence is proving to be more challenging than anticipated. One trial to determine whether a computer appears to "think" involves a human judge having two conversations, one with a human and one with a machine. If the human judge is unable to distinguish between them, then the machine has passed the test. To date, no computer has succeeded. The key area where AI stumbles is the ability to make connections between seemingly unconnected things in order to generate creative thought. However, AI is getting more sophisticated: Machines have created music and played games that have fooled human judges; devices tell lifeguards if someone is drowning; and computers control traffic flow in our cities.

But, as for computers actually taking over, there is currently very little evidence to support this. Despite fears of computer viruses stealing personal information, computers communicating between themselves, and computer systems replacing human workforces, there is no evidence of computers actually taking over our lives any time soon. Keeping on top of the situation is a new organization called the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI). This group looks at the potential impact of current advances in AI. A similar group was set up in the 1970s to look at emerging advances in DNA technology and accurately predicted the emergence of genetic engineering in humans and genetically modified crops, which were hitherto unknown. So, maybe the AAAI knows something we don't.

To sum up, we are still some ways off from making an informed prediction about whether technology will be our salvation or will ruin our lives. But it would be an error to assume that advances in technology will ever halt, as computer scientist John von Neumann did fifty years ago when he stated, "It would appear we have reached the limits of what is possible to achieve with computer technology."

happening a lot or all the time:
He's in constant trouble with the police.

a strong complaint expressing disagreement, disapproval or opposition:
Protests have been made/registered by many people who would be affected by the proposed changes.

novel (NEW)
new and original, not like anything seen before:
Keeping a sheep in the garden is a novel way of keeping the grass short!

novel (BOOK)
a long printed story about imaginary characters and events:
a paperback novel

to weaken in strength and influence:
Support for the government is crumbling.

to send people to live in and govern another country:
Peru was colonized by the Spanish in the sixteenth century.

to remove solids from liquids or gases, or to remove particular types of light, using special equipment:
The water is filtered to remove any impurities.

to combine or join together, or to cause things to do this:
They decided to merge the two companies into one.

1 for all time:
I like the house but I don't imagine I'll live there forever.

a soldier of middle rank:
Sergeant Lewis

to make information about something generally available:
The work of the charity has been widely publicized throughout the media.

using artificial materials and methods to produce especially a human activity or movement:
a bionic arm or leg

relating to computers or something that is done by computers:
electronic publishing

the part of a electronic device that receives sound or light:
She picked up the receiver and dialled his number.

1 the main shape or edge of something, without any details:
She drew the outline of the boat and then coloured it in.

describes a problem or subject that is difficult to deal with:
He has now raised the thorny issue of taxation within the European Union.

a test, usually over a limited period of time, to discover how effective or suitable something or someone is:
They're doing clinical trials on a new drug.

to make a mistake, such as repeating something or pausing for too long, while speaking or playing a piece of music:
When the poet stumbled over a line in the middle of a poem, someone in the audience corrected him.

having a good understanding of the way people behave or a good knowledge of culture and fashion:
She was slim, svelte and sophisticated.

to die by being unable to breathe under water:
He drowned in a boating accident.

1 to take something without the permission or knowledge of the owner and keep it:
She admitted stealing the money from her employers.

a way of being saved from danger, loss or harm:
After the diagnosis, getting to know Mary was his salvation.

to spoil or destroy severely or completely:
Huge modern hotels have ruined this once unspoilt coastline.

a mistake:
He admitted that he'd made an error.

to cause to stop moving or doing something or happening:
Security forces halted the demonstrators by blocking the road.

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Read more: Rise of the machines: has technology evolved beyond our control?
Reference: Focus on Vocabulary
FoV 01 - C05U19

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