Singularity: The robots are coming to steal our jobs

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Are robots on the verge of real intelligence?

If you worry that the robots are coming, don't, because they are already here.

Artificial intelligence agents are already involved in every aspect of our lives - they keep our inboxes free of spam, they help us make our web transactions, they fly our planes and if Google gets its way will also soon drive our cars for us.

"AI's are embedded in the fabric of our everyday lives," head of AI at Singularity University, Neil Jacobstein, told the BBC.

"They are used in medicine, in law, in design and throughout automotive industry."

And each day the algorithms that power away, making decisions behind the scenes, are getting smarter.

It means that one of the biggest quests of the modern world - the search to make machines as intelligent as humans - could be getting tantalisingly close.

Mr Jacobstein predicts that artificial intelligence will overtake human intelligence in the mid-2020s, begging the question - what will a society dominated by machine intelligence look like and what exactly will be our role in it?

Stealing jobs?

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Will we work side by side with robots?

We may get to put our feet up more, for a start.

Chinese company Hon Hai, the world's largest contract electronics manufacturer, has announced it intends to build a robot-making factory and replace 500,000 workers with robots over the next three years.

But not having a job will also mean not having a wage, a radical change for a world used to working for a living.

"AIs will cause significant unemployment but that doesn't equate with poverty," said Mr Jacobstein.

"AIs and other exponential technologies are going to generate vast amounts of wealth.

"We have to be willing to change the social contract we have with people about how wealth is distributed."

He tends towards the optimistic view of machines and humans working in perfect harmony, side by side.

"The best combination for problem solving is a human and a computer," he said.

Dangerous future

Author and documentary-maker James Barrat sits in a very different camp. He is so worried about the onslaught of artificial intelligence that he has written a book about it.

Our Final Invention examines whether the increasing domination of artificial intelligence is going to mean the end of the human era.

"Advanced AI is a dual-use technology, like nuclear fission. Fission can illuminate cities or incinerate them. At advanced levels, AI will be even more volatile and dangerous than fission, and it's already being weaponised in autonomous drones and battlefield robots," Barrat told the BBC.

"More than any other science it forces us to probe ourselves - what are these things we call intelligence, conscience, emotion? But in looking inward we better see our own predilection for irrational violence and technological recklessness. Our innovation always runs far ahead of our stewardship," he said.

The robot revolution may be some way off if a competition organised by the Pentagon's research unit Darpa in December is anything to go by.

Videos posted online showed the robots remained much slower than humans, often unsteady on their feet with some failing to complete any of the challenges.

Google bot

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Will Google build a real robot next?

Nonetheless there is a buzz around robots and artificial intelligence at the moment. Google has just bought eight robotic firms, while Facebook has its very own AI lab.

Speculation is rife about what Google will do with its new acquisition.

Google robots could be very powerful, thinks Mr Barrat.

"That's one route to human level intelligence. A high quality personal assistant wouldn't be just a smartphone - it'd have a humanoid body. Why humanoid? So it can drive your car, use your tools, bounce the baby, act as your bodyguard if need be," he said.

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Will people start adding silicon to themselves?

If the rise of the robots is inevitable - albeit a few years off - then it is also a logical step that humans will eventually be eliminated from the decision chain entirely, meaning AIs will be controlling other AIs.

That was already happening in our laptops and computers, said Mr Jacobstein.

"Anti-virus software is basically AI techniques that is being used to detect other AIs that we call viruses and worms," he said.

But he acknowledges that controls to make sure that the phrase "robot failure" doesn't replace "human failure" would have to be built into future AI systems.

"We would build the same layered control system we need in everyday life with humans. We want to look at the risks and build controls that stops that rogue behaviour," he said.

Brain upgrade

While Mr Jacobstein remains sanguine about the robot takeover, he is well aware that many see it as the stuff of nightmares.

"Some people ask, 'How do you sleep at night knowing the prospects for artificial intelligence?' but it isn't artificial intelligence that keeps me awake at night, it is human stupidity," he said.

For him, the only way that humans will keep up with the robots is to become more like them.

"Our brains haven't had a major upgrade for 50,000 years and if your laptop or smartphone hadn't had an upgrade in five years you might be concerned about that," he said.

Already we have access to AI's such as Siri and Google Now and are pretty much constantly connected to the web via our smartphones, so it isn't so much of a step to imagine a future where silicon is embedded in our skulls.

And it could be the only way for us to keep up with the robots.