There is heartening news for pro-humanity partisans. In at least one field of endeavor, human beings still reign supreme over our would-be robot overlords. I am speaking of course of that highest of human pursuits, ping pong. Last week Kuka Robotics released a video of an epic contest between its own “Agilus” robot and table tennis champion Timo Boll. To pretty much everybody’s surprise, man triumphed over machine 11-9. Yet one is struck by the closeness of the contest and the sense that we are very close to living in a dystopian world where robots are better than humans at ping pong. What sort of a world does that leave for our children?
I’m speaking with tongue firmly in cheek. But the ping pong duel is merely the latest in a long series of man vs. machine contests going at least as far back to the mythical John Henry who died “with his hammer in his hand” after working himself to exhaustion beating out a steam-powered hammer in a contest of brawn. As with the fable of John Henry, one gets the sense that even where humans win the occasional battle we are losing the war. Machines get ever more nimble and versatile. Computers grow ever more intelligent. Yet humans are still pretty much the same as the first Homo Sapiens Sapiens to gaze up at the stars 195,000 years ago.
One doesn’t have to be a predictive genius to see that we’re reaching a point where computers and machines will be better than human beings at virtually every physical and mental task. It will take longer for computers to surpass humans in the most complex knowledge worker fields, where creativity and abstract analysis matter more than raw processing power. But unless one believes that biological intelligence is categorically different than machine intelligence, a sufficiently advanced AI will be able to perform even the highest-level knowledge worker tasks better than any human.
Thus the conclusion seems inevitable that, absent some apocalypse that destroys humanity or greatly diminishes our technological base, there will come a time when humans are entirely obsolete. Even assuming that computers never develop a will to power and continue to obey our instructions, we are moving towards a world where humans will assume the role of well-cared-for pets pursuing hobbies and pastimes while the machines do the serious work of running the world for our benefit. I wonder; will our grandchildren find that world satisfying?
Perhaps I am being overly pessimistic. Perhaps we will find a way to evolve with our machines and remain relevant participants in our own future. In any event, the day of human obsolescence is not yet here. There may come a day when the age of men comes crashing down. But it not this day! On this day a man stands supreme and unbowed with a ping pong paddle in his hands.