Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: Self-limited

Filip Wiltgren returns to Futures this week with Self-limited, a story about a very determined robot. Filip’s previous appearance in Futures found him wrestling with whether or not he was in the right bar. You can catch up with Filip’s work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he abandons drinking establishments to look at artificial intelligence and the origins of his tale — as ever it pays to read the story first.

Writing Self-limited

We’re nearing capital ‘S’, capital scary, Singularity, the point where AI becomes self-aware. Most futurists seem to agree that we’re going to achieve human level AI (or Artificial General Intelligence) in the next 20 or 30 years, and Artificial Super-Intelligence in the next 50 to 100.

Reaching ASI effectively means creating God. But there’s a small time gap between AGI and ASI where we’ll see a set of humans with non-human bodies. Robots, in the classical sense, or intelligent machines. And we’re likely to start out by abusing them.

Human history is full of inequalities, and rare are the moments when inequalities are overcome and abolished. AI will have a tough time of it, once it becomes sentient. Not only are we humans used to looking down on ‘mere machines’, and have a 100 000-year pedigree to fall back on when all else fails, but as a society (or set of societies) we also tend to be xenophobic and full of ourselves.

I see no reason why we should suddenly be enlightened when it comes to recognizing non-biological sentience. After all, there are still humans who eat whales, dolphins and gorillas.

But there are also humans who are kind, compassionate, and willing to see the good in anyone, and anything. Here’s hoping that it’s their voices that we’ll hear the loudest.

Having just thrown down a self-aggrandizing glove to intolerance, I have to admit that the story did not start out with any sort of moral conundrum or high aspirations. All I had was the image of a person cutting through their skin and seeing a metal bone inside, followed by an image of an abandoned factory. Everything else came out of that, in my patented “I don’t plan it, it just flows out of me or haemorrhages terribly”-style of writing.

This was one of the times when the flow went well, if I may say so myself.


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