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PAINTER: Are we headed for a world controlled by robots?

• Apr 23, 2018 at 3:00 PM

My family sometimes watches the “X-Files,” a science fiction-themed television show. The long-running series features two FBI agents — Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) — investigating, among other things, paranormal phenomena.

The series is patterned after some old TV shows, including one of my all-time favorites, “Twilight Zone.”

The “X-Files” episodes are science fiction, but they are fun to watch. Mulder and Scully are interesting to watch as they investigate unexplained events involving such things as monsters and the existence of aliens.

A recent episode we watched, however, really caught my attention. The episode revolved around artificial intelligence.

According to the website dictionary Wikipedia, artificial intelligence involves machines that could successfully perform any intellectual task that a human being can. We have already seen how AI can play a role in our lives.

This particular episode paints a dangerous picture of how AI can run amok. While this episode is, of course, fiction, it does make us pause to think about how AI will impact our lives in the future.

For those who may have missed the episode, the show opens with Mulder and Scully dining in an empty sushi restaurant. There are no waiters or waitresses, so they have to order their meals from a digital device. When their meals are served, Scully’s is fine. But Mulder is served a big, ugly slimy fish. Mulder then goes into the kitchen to complain but finds that there are only robots working there.

Mulder gives up and pays his bill with a credit card without leaving a tip. Artificial intelligence devices then begin to take measures. Mulder and Scully are briefly trapped in the restaurant, but they manage to escape.

Scully gets into a self-driving vehicle to go to her home. The vehicle suddenly goes too fast for Scully’s liking, even after she told the machine to slow down.

It didn’t get much better for Mulder as he tried to get his car to play a Prince song, but instead it played a Crosby, Stills & Nash song titled “Teach Your Children,” a reminder that he should have left a tip.

The artificial intelligence experience gets worse for both of them as they return to their “smart” homes. Scully has a robot vacuum that gets out of control, as well as other electronic devices that go haywire. Meanwhile, Mulder has his own problems — he takes a baseball bat to a drone that had been watching him.

Mulder and Scully eventually get together and are chased by drones. Mulder finally agrees to leave a tip, and life appears to return to normal. The show ends with Mulder and Scully having breakfast at a regular restaurant and putting their smartphones down.

What makes this particular episode so interesting is that we are hearing more and more about the impact that artificial intelligence will have on us. Some people feel AI will doom us, including some leading scientists who feel that someday robots could control our minds.

British inventor Clive Sinclair was quoted in the Washington Post as saying artificial intelligence will doom mankind: “Once you start to make machines that are rivaling and surpassing humans with intelligence, it is going to be very difficult for us to survive.”

Not everyone is painting such a grim picture. According to an article written by Ryan Ayers for the Machine Learning website, artificial intelligence will have some positive benefits, such as robots being our friends and improving care for the elderly by helping them with everyday tasks.

We are already using artificial intelligence in some forms, such as having personal assistance devices as Siri, Alexa, Echo and Cortana offering us help. Some of our smartphones are now using fingerprint and photo recognition to turn on our devices.

Our automobiles are now equipped with numerous electronic devices that tell us about the conditions of our vehicles, as well as offer directions to our destinations. Robots are now common at auto manufacturing plants. Even large newspapers are using robots for short reports or alerts.

Yes, our world is changing with the advent of artificial intelligence. It will get even more technologically advanced in the future.

Perhaps someday there will be a restaurant without waiters or waitresses. But be sure to leave a tip — you don’t want to have drones following you like Mulder and Scully had experienced.

— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist

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