Merging humanity with artificial intelligence (AI) might be more familiar in sci-fi circles, but it’s fast becoming a reality. Indeed, according to some tech insiders, it may be the only way for humans to gain an edge in our AI-powered future.
Understanding AI and human hybrids
AI and human hybrids are still in their relative infancy. One version sees sewing-machine-like robots implanting ultrafine electrodes deep into the human brain. These augmentations are touted as a potential cure for paralysis, neurological conditions and other degenerative brain diseases.
The implants can detect neuron activity and have successfully recorded information from 1,500 neurons at once. So far, the technology has been trialled on rats (and, some suspect, monkeys) with an 87% success rate. That means it’s likely a long way off from human trials – despite a projected timeline of human trials starting in spring 2020. To reach this point, the success rate in vivo will have to jump, and the implants will be subject to FDA approval.
The ultimate goal of the technology seems conflicted. On one hand, its main application is towards medical science. On the other, it’s proposed as a way to help humans read, understand and transmit vast amounts of data. Whereas big data is currently in the realms of machines, AI/human hybrids could give those machines a run for their gigabytes.
The risk to national security
But this poses risks to national security, at least in the eyes of the United States Defense Intelligence Agency. The organisation is particularly concerned about China’s advancements in the area and the potential consequences in warfare.
Now, the Agency is rushing to understand the technology and formulate an appropriate response to China’s experiments with AI/human hybrids.
AI/human soldiers could prove more intelligent, with greater physical stamina, than a natural human. This gives the augmented army a significant advantage on the battlefield – and could lead to an AI/hybrid arms race with humanity as collateral damage.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) already has a headstart. It’s developed a brain-computer interface that enables U.S. soldiers to communicate telepathically with drone swarms and jets. Signals from aircraft can be delivered directly back into the brain to help soldiers build a detailed view of the surrounding environment and conditions. This technology has applications beyond warfare. Air traffic control will become more accurate, drivers could remotely control vehicles, and piloting delivery drones around a city will be easier.
The ethics of implants
Of course, the ethical implications of implanting AI into human bodies are still being explored. One argument suggests that it’s merely an extension of humanity’s current use of smartphones. After all, we’ve relinquished various aspects of our social lives, work and entertainment to the devices.
RFID chips have also been implanted in willing volunteers. To access restricted environments and resources, like offices, or to facilitate financial transactions. Wearable technology offers a less invasive approach and many have become used to augmenting their day-to-day with smartwatches, glasses and even jewellery.
Human rights implications
However, even with chip implants, there are concerns about coercion and individual choice. When an employer asks a worker to get an implant for security or operational reasons, it would be difficult for that worker to refuse.
Then there are other ethical questions that will have to be answered. For instance, the role of AI/human hybrids in sport and games. If they have an unfair advantage, should an augmented human be allowed to compete in the Olympics?
What of AI/human hybrid rights? Will AI/human hybrids be bound by End User License Agreements that place legal restrictions on what they can do with implanted devices?
Who owns the data?
For devices that collect data, there’s the additional question of who, or what entity, owns that data and what it can be used for. Neural implants, for example, could potentially collect everything that a human experiences and sees during their day. This information would be invaluable to an organisation – if they have permission to use it.
Good and evil
As with most technology, there is the capacity for great good and evil with AI/human hybrids. AI implants will certainly give humanity an edge in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But it’s up to us to ensure that this advantage is used to better society – and not threaten it.