It's been the fodder for countless dystopian movies: a singularity in which artificial intelligence rivals human smarts.
But though it sounds like science fiction, many computer scientists say the singularity will arrive some time in the 21st century.
Still, few people agree on what that future will look like. Some envision epic battles between robots and humans, while others believe the rise of super-intelligent machines will usher in human immortality. [Extending Life: 7 Ways to Live Past 100]
From mass extinction to life extension, here are six potential implications of super-smart robots.
It's the nightmare that fueled "The Terminator" — the possibility that robots could end up vying with humans for dominance. Engineers are already developing robotic pack mules and soldiers, while drones have become a mainstay in the war against terror. At least a few apocalyptic visionaries see super-intelligent robots turning on their human makers sometime next century. Still, many computer scientists say this isn't the biggest of the singularity.
Many people, such as the futurist Ray Kurzweil, believe that humans won't have to die after the singularity. Some envision a future where humans port their brain into computers, essentially living within the machines. Others imagine cybernetic parts to replace cancerous limbs and aging hearts, radically increasing longevity. Either way, death could be transformed from an inevitable aspect of life to a relatively rare occurrence.
Once machines can match human intelligence, it will be a simple matter of copying intelligent agent software, which is capable of programming an artificial mind, from one computer to the next to create more workers for the economy. Whereas the economy doubled every thousand years after the agricultural revolution, and every 15 years after the industrial revolution, a post-singularity economy could double every month, then week, Hanson said. That blistering pace of economic growth could be so fast that humans couldn't keep up.
Because robots don't need air, water or food, they won't fear destroying the environment like mortals do. As a result, some believe there's a greater risk of super-intelligent robots draining all of Earth's natural resources, said Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., who is writing a book about the singularity. The robot revolution could worsen already dire environmental problems.
Cybernetic implants could also mean much smarter, super-powered humans. Kurzweil, now a director of engineering at Google, envisions a world where most people make use of cybernetic implants to be smarter, see farther and be stronger. Of course, that might make humans cyborgs, but most people would be too busy using their newly acquired superpowers to mind much.
As robots get smarter, humans just won't be able to keep up. While simpler tasks may be outsourced to robots at first, by 2045 Kurzweil predicts that machines will be billions of times smarter than un-augmented human beings. Robots have already replaced factory workers, and self-driving cars are just around the corner. Still other computer-science technologies, such as the ultrafast stock trading programs that cause "flash crashes," are being developed without considering how they could damage people or put them out of work, said Bill Hibbard, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Once almost all tasks are outsourced to super-intelligence, humans may gradually lose the abilities that once defined Homo sapiens' smarts. In fact, some say the world is in the midst of the singularity already: Humans have already relinquished their ability to navigate, memorize and calculate, said Joan Slonczewski, a microbiologist at Kenyon College in Ohio. Scientists have even developed empathetic robots to do some of the most human tasks — caring for the sick and elderly.
In the end humans may become like mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of the cells. Though mitochondria were once independent organisms, primitive bacteria engulfed mitochondria long ago, and they gradually outsourced all their functions but making energy. Humans may similarly lose all their abilities, regressing to the point that they only provide energy for the machines.