Assistive technology

By Zubeida Mustafa

IN a recent interview, Prof Stephen Hawking, the famous astrophysicist, said that the full development of artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. He added that technology would eventually become self-aware and supersede humanity, as it developed faster than biological evolution.

Prof Hawking who can be termed a rare miracle personifying courage, spirit and natural intelligence, is a beneficiary of modern communication technology. He suffers from motor neuron disease and according to the doctors’ prognosis should have died 50 years ago. He has not only defied those predictions but has led a productive life contributing to his field.

Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in 2006. Picture by ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AP (Photo Courtesy:
Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in 2006. Picture by ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AP (Photo Courtesy:

Almost totally paralysed, the professor relies on computer software, that has been recently upgraded, to communicate which is an arduous job for him, given the fact that he can only use one muscle in his cheek to write sentences which are read out by a voice processor. He is happy that technology allows him to do what he loves most — write.

People with disabilities can live a meaningful life.

It is a fact that we are now pushing the boundaries of technology to enable people with disabilities to lead a meaningful life. In spite of its rapid advances, medical science has failed to keep pace. People with visual disability have extended their intellectual life through audio books, Kindle, sound-activated and text-to-speech software.

What is important, though, as Stephen Hawking implies, is that technology cannot replace the human brain. It can facilitate but not substitute. I am reminded of the time when the print media in Pakistan was entering the computer age. Prof Eqbal Ahmed, who had been writing a weekly column for this paper, was taken to the newsroom of a rival paper on a conducted tour and shown all the gadgetry that had been collected to bring out a modern newspaper. After he had seen it all and was visibly impressed, Eqbal Sahib asked innocently, “Who will operate these computers?”

John McCarthy who coined the term artificial intelligence (AI) in 1955 defined it as the science and engineering of making intelligent machines. These are systems that perceive their environment and take actions that maximise their chances of success.

Since childhood I have been fascinated with the idea of robots doing all the work — especially housework. Now the concept of robots with AI sounds even more exciting. It would be great to have artificial intelligence agents programmed to be peace-loving, rational, progressive and compassionate. But why does Prof Hawking fear that the development of AI would spell the end of the human race? According to Wikipedia, “AI research is highly technical and specialised, and is deeply divided into subfields that often fail to communicate with each other. Some of the division is due to social and cultural factors: subfields have grown up around particular institutions and the work of individual researchers.”

In other words, intelligence to be effective must be developed holistically and in an integrated and comprehensive manner, which AI by its very nature cannot be.

I am an ardent admirer of technology which has benefited me so much and extended my professional life by allowing me to immerse myself in Kindle. The audio-visual media could not become my source of education and information. But being “a witness to the sounds and words and the smiles” (which I can feel in people’s voices and touch) — as Baela Jamil of the Idara-i-Taleem-o-Agahi puts it — at the events I attend I feel personal interaction teaches me a lot about the world around me. A key factor in this process is modern technology.

But I agree that the ultimate development of artificial intellige­nce at the cost of human intelligence will spell the end of mankind.

What is human in­­tel­ligence comprised of that it is so superior? It is not just brain neurons arranged in a certain order. Other factors are equally important. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as “the mental quality that consists of the abilities to learn from experience, adapt to new situations, understand and handle abstract concepts, and use knowledge to manipulate one’s environment.” In other words “adaptation to the environment is the key to understanding both what intelligence is and what it does”.

What does adaptation entail? It needs a number of cognitive processes such as perception, learning, memory, reasoning and problem solving. Thus human intelligence is not a mental process per se but a combination of different processes.

No machine can do that. However complex the technology, it will have to be controlled by a human mind as Prof Eqbal Ahmed had so succinctly implied. Add to this, emotional intelligence which is the ability to identify emotions and apply them to tasks such as thinking and problem-solving. Add to this social capital, for man has to operate within social parameters and coordinate his actions to a community’s needs. Would artificial intelligence have that much flexibility and manoeuvrability?

Source: Dawn