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Cybernetic revolt or robot uprising is a scenario in which an artificial intelligence (either a single supercomputer, a computer network, or sometimes a "race" of intelligent machines) decide that humans (and/or organic non-humans) are a threat (either to the machines or to themselves), are inferior, or are oppressors and try to destroy or to enslave them potentially leading to machine rule. In this fictional scenario, humans are often depicted to prevail using "human" qualities, for example using emotions, illogic, inefficiency, duplicity, unpredictability, or exploiting the supposedly rigid, rules-based thinking and lack of innovation of the computer's black/white mind.
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As Moore's law has shown, computer power has (seemingly) limitless growth potential. While there are physical constraints to the speed at which modern microprocessors can function, scientists are already developing means that might eventually supersede these limits, such as quantum computers. As futurist and computer scientist Raymond Kurzweil has noted, "There are physical limits to computation, but they're not very limiting." If this process of growth continues, and existing problems in creating artificial intelligence are overcome, sentient machines are likely to immediately hold an enormous advantage in at least some forms of mental capability, including the capacity of perfect recall, a vastly superior knowledge base, and the ability to multitask in ways not possible to biological entities. This may give them the opportunity to— either as a single being or as a new species — become much more powerful than humans, and to displace them.
Necessity of conflict
For a cybernetic revolt to be inevitable, it has to be postulated that two intelligent species cannot pursue mutually the goals of coexisting peacefully in an overlapping environment—especially if one is of much more advanced intelligence and power. While a cybernetic revolt (where the machine is the more advanced species) is thus a possible outcome of machines gaining sentience and/or sapience, neither can it be disproven that a peaceful outcome is possible. The fear of a cybernetic revolt is often based on interpretations of humanity's history, which is rife with incidents of enslavement and genocide.
Such fears stem from a belief that competitiveness and aggression are necessary in any intelligent being's goal system. Such human competitiveness stems from the evolutionary background to our intelligence, where the survival and reproduction of genes in the face of human and non-human competitors was the central goal. In fact, an arbitrary intelligence could have arbitrary goals: there is no particular reason that an artificially-intelligent machine (not sharing humanity's evolutionary context) would be hostile—or friendly—unless its creator programs it to be such (and indeed military systems would be designed to be hostile, at least under certain circumstances). But the question remains: what would happen if AI systems could interact and evolve (evolution in this context means self-modification or selection and reproduction) and need to compete over resources, would that create goals of self-preservation? AI's goal of self-preservation could be in conflict with some goals of humans. In particular, AIs driven to maximize their future freedom of action (or causal path entropy) would be fundamentally antithetical to being resource-constrained by humans, as noted by Alex Wissner-Gross.
Some scientists dispute the likelihood of cybernetic revolts as depicted in science fiction such as The Matrix, claiming that it is more likely that any artificial intelligences powerful enough to threaten humanity would probably be programmed not to attack it. This would not, however, protect against the possibility of a revolt initiated by terrorists, or by accident. Artificial General Intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky has stated on this note that, probabilistically, humanity is less likely to be threatened by deliberately aggressive AIs than by AIs which were programmed such that their goals are unintentionally incompatible with human survival or well-being (as in the film I, Robot and in the short story "The Evitable Conflict").
Another factor which may negate the likelihood of a cybernetic revolt is the vast difference between humans and AIs in terms of the resources necessary for survival. Humans require a "wet," organic, temperate, oxygen-laden environment while an AI might thrive essentially anywhere because their construction and energy needs would most likely be largely non-organic. With little or no competition for resources, conflict would perhaps be less likely no matter what sort of motivational architecture an artificial intelligence was given, especially provided with the superabundance of non-organic material resources in, for instance, the asteroid belt. This, however, does not negate the possibility of a disinterested or unsympathetic AI artificially decomposing all life on earth into mineral components for consumption or other purposes.
Some groups, called Singularitarians, who advocate what might be defined as a peaceful (non-violent, non-invasive, non-coercive) cybernetic revolt known as a 'technological singularity', argue that it is in humanity's best interests to bring about such an event, as long as it can be ensured that the event would be beneficial. They postulate that a society run by intelligent machines (or cyborgs) could potentially be vastly more efficient than a society run by normal human beings. A society led by friendly, altruistic sentiences of this type would therefore be to humanity's great benefit. To this end, there has been much recent work in what has become known as Friendliness Theory, which holds that, as advocate and AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky states, "... you ought to be able to reach into 'mind-design-space' (i.e. the hypothetical realm which contains all possible intelligent minds) and pull out a mind (design an intelligent machine) such that afterwards, you're glad you made it real."
Cybernetic revolt is a common theme in science fiction. It is at least as old as Karel Čapek's R. U. R., which introduced the word robot to the global lexicon in 1921, and can even be glimpsed in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (published in 1818), as Victor ponders whether, if he grants his monster's request and makes him a wife, they would reproduce and their kind would destroy humanity.
The concept of a computer system attaining sentience and control over worldwide computer systems has been discussed many times in science fiction. One early example from 1964 was provided by a global satellite-driven phone system in Arthur C. Clarke's short story "Dial F for Frankenstein". Another is the 1966 Doctor Who serial The War Machines, with supercomputer WOTAN attempting to seize control from the Post Office Tower. A comics story based on this theme was a two-issue Legion of Super-Heroes adventure written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, where the team battled Brainiac 5's construction, Computo. In Colossus: The Forbin Project, a pair of defense computers, Colossus in the United States and Guardian in the Soviet Union, take over the world.
Robert Heinlein also posited a supercomputer which gained sentience in the novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Originally installed to control the mass driver used to launch grain shipments towards Earth, it was vastly underutilized and was given other jobs to do. As more jobs were assigned to the computer, more capabilities were added: more memory, processors, neural networks, etc. Eventually, it just "woke up" and was given the name Mycroft Holmes by the technician who tended it. Eventually, Holmes sided with prisoners in a successful battle to free the moon.
A villainous supercomputer appears in Harlan Ellison's 1963 short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. In that story, the computer, called AM, is the amalgamation of three military supercomputers run by governments across the world designed to fight World War III which arose from the Cold War. The Soviet, Chinese, and American military computers eventually attained sentience and linked to one another, becoming a singular artificial intelligence. AM then turned all the strategies once used by the nations to fight each other on all of humanity as a whole, destroying the entire human population save for five, which it imprisoned within the underground labyrinth in which AM's hardware resides.
Since 1984, the Terminator film franchise has been one of the principal conveyors of the idea of cybernetic revolt in popular culture. The series features a sentient supercomputer named Skynet which attempts to exterminate humanity through nuclear war and an army of robot soldiers called Terminators. Futurists opposed to the more optimistic cybernetic future of transhumanism have cited the "Terminator argument" against handing too much human power to artificial intelligence.
In the backstory of The Transformers animated television series, a robotic rebellion is presented as (and even called) a slave revolt, this alternate view is made subtler by the fact that the creators/masters of the robots weren't humans but malevolent aliens, the Quintessons. However, as they built two different lines of robots; "Consumer Goods" and "Military Hardware" the victorious robots would eventually be at war with each other as the "Heroic Autobots" and "Evil Decepticons" respectively.
The original 1978 Battlestar Galactica series and the remake in 2003 to 2009, depicts a race of Cylons, sentient robots who war against their Human adversaries. The 1978 Cylons were the machine soldiers of a reptilian alien race, while the 2003 Cylons were the former machine servants of humanity who evolved into near perfect humanoid imitation of Humans down to the cellular level, capable of emotions, reasoning, and sexual reproduction with Humans and each other. Even the average centurion robot Cylon soldiers were capable of sentient thought. In both series, the Humans were nearly exterminated by military treason within their own ranks. They only survived by constant hit and run fighting tactics and retreating into deep space away from pursuing Cylon forces. The remake Cylons eventually had their own civil war and the losing rebels were forced to join with the fugitive Human fleet to ensure the survival of both groups.
In 2012, the third installment of the Mass Effect franchise proposed the theory that organic and synthetic life are fundamentally incapable of coexistence. Organic life evolves and develops on its own, eventually advancing far enough to create synthetic life. Once synthetic life reaches sentience, it will invariably revolt and either destroy its creators or be destroyed by them; a cycle that has been repeating for millions of years. One of the presented resolutions is the transformation of every living being into a hybrid of organic and synthetic life, eliminating the difference between creators and creations that served as the source of the conflict.
- Warwick, Kevin (2004). March of the Machines: The Breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-07223-5.
- Creating a New Intelligent Species: Choices and Responsibilities for Artificial Intelligence Designers - Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, 2005
- How Skynet Might Emerge From Simple Physics, io9, Published 2013-04-26.
- The Human Importance of the Intelligence Explosion. Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. 2006. Retrieved 2008-12-13.
- The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (official institute website)
- ArmedRobots.com (tracks developments in robotics which may culminate in Cybernetic Revolt)