There seem to be only two reactions to AI / robotics / nanotechnology: 'Everything's gonna be great' or 'we're all going to die'.

Balanced, eh?

Example of the first, Ray Kurzweil, leading futurolgist, inventor of some quite funky stuff and manic positivist, as quoted in today's Independent: 'intelligent nanorobots will be deeply integrated in our bodies, our brains and our environment, overcoming pollution and poverty, extending longevity and creating full-immersion virtual reality, experience beaming and vastly enhanced human intelligence.'

For an encore it will create a recipe for a fluffy never-collapsing soufflé.

On the other hand, naysayer Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, said in 2004: 'The Pandora's boxes are almost open, yet we hardly seem to have noticed. Ideas can't be put back in a box...and they can be freely copied.' Ideas are part of what life is about of course, but he has a point.

When the same newspaper report as mentioned above talks about the advent of self-replicating nano-technology, fear seems like a reasonable reaction. Who controls them? What nefarious ends will they be put to? The targeted curing of disease, one of the most oft quoted benefits of microscopic machines is laudable, but it doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to see gruesome applications.

And we still don't know if humans are even capable of producing intelligence that can surpass a human’s. It would be a shame if we find out that we can, and shortly afterward discover we have no way of controlling it...still, does that mean dystopia or utopia?

Isaac Asimov wrote robot stories around his famous three laws because he hated the apparently lazy notion perpetuated by pulp writers of the 1930s that robots would take over. Strangely the more tech evolves the more likely this scenario seems to get.

Last quote from the Indie: 'Superior robot intelligence...could ultimately destroy us by mistake. We may, for example, ask it to perform a complex calculation and it could respond by turning all matter on earth into a calculator.'

All human life destroyed by an abacus!

About the author

Brian Runciman is Head of Content at BCS and blogs about the Institute’s role in making IT good for society, historical developments in computing, the implications of CS research and more.