Despite worries that robots will take jobs from humans, a group of researchers says what's more likely, and more powerful, is that humans will eventually work cooperatively with cyber assistants.
A soldier might be given a smart assistant that will train with him and one day do battle alongside him. A college grad just entering the workforce may get her own smart assistant that will learn along with her and provide support as she advances through her career.
In this way, artificial intelligence (A.I.) and robots could very well make people better soldiers and workers. They could make people become what we've come to think of as "super" human.
"There are many exciting areas [in A.I.] coming up, but A.I. and human cooperation is an area with tremendous potential," said Tom Dietterich, a professor and director of Intelligent Systems at Oregon State University. "Instead of A.I. systems replacing people in the workplace, each of us would have an A.I. assistant that we would train in our lives and the two of us, together, would be employed ... This is where we can see super-human performance coming from the combination of the human and the computer."
Scientists like Trevor Darrell, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that in the next five or 10 years, the abilities of smart devices will multiply by orders of magnitude.
That means we'll have gone from a world where artificial intelligence is used to power Google search and Apple's smart assistant Siri to having smart furniture that can reposition itself around the house based on our voice commands and robotic butlers will bring us coffee when we simply think about wanting a cup.
It also means there will be increasingly smart robots working in factories and warehouses.
Some worry that companies will replace human workers with machines that don't have to be paid for vacation time, health care and sick leave.
And their fears don't stop at factory jobs.
Late last year, Andrew McAfee, co-founder of the Initiative on the Digital Economy at MIT, said it won't be long before intelligent machines will begin to increasingly replace knowledge workers.
In the near future, artificially intelligent machines could be used to provide financial advice or a medical diagnoses. Middle-class workers could be looking into a future where they are replaced by machines.
Not so fast, though.
What if instead of a world where people queue up in unemployment lines while robots take their jobs, we look ahead to a world where robots and smart assistants help us during the work day, provide us with cleaner homes, remember friends' birthdays and even protect us in battle?
That's a world to look forward to rather than to be afraid of, said Pam Melroy, deputy director of the Tactical Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.
"Really interesting things are going to happen at the interception of biology and A.I.," said Melroy, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and former NASA astronaut. "There's something about human machine communication symbiosis and how humans and machines can partner well together."
Dietterich said this human/smart machine cooperation is already happening ... and with impressive results.
For example, a computer has been working to figure out the shape of a protein in three dimensions, but the work wasn't going well, Dietterich said.
Then humans began working with the computer program, and that changed. With humans working in conjunction with the computer, the solution to the 3D structure of an HIV enzyme, was found in three weeks.
"The algorithm and humans could not have done this so quickly on their own," said Dietterich. "A.I. will work its way into our lives in big ways working with people."
He said he expects this human/A.I. cooperation to eventually catch on and grow rapidly in a number of areas, such as high-speed stock trades, automated surgical assistants and autonomous weapons.
A maintenance worker, for instance, would have a smart assistant that could help diagnose a problem with a boiler, suggest ways to repair it or assist the human with the repair.
In a military setting, an enlistee would receive a personal assistant when she gets to basic training. The soldier will always keep her assistant with her so it will learn the human's strengths and weaknesses as she goes through training and into different jobs. That way the assistant can continually adapt to help the soldier as she completes different tasks and advances to higher ranks.
The idea behind a smart assistant is for the machine to learn as its human user does, so it can help with different and more complicated tasks.
This cooperation will also take shape in our personal lives.
Dietterich said we're not that far away from having automated wheelchairs that, with a voice command or gesture, will take the user to different rooms inside a home or within an office building.
Melroy agreed that smart assistants won't always come in the form of human-sized robots or digital assistants that can fit in your pocket.
Someone who's lost a limb could get a smart limb that will sense and function much, or even just like, a natural appendage.
"Think about when Luke Skywalker loses his hand," said Melroy. "He gets a new one and it can feel. It's no different. He can continue to function in all the ways he was used to. The ability to control that new hand with your brain and have seamless sensing in real life? Absolutely, that is coming. That is five to 10 years away."
To make that work, Melroy said, we'll need to be able to communicate with our smart devices without typing on a keyboard or using a mouse. Even spoken commands would be too awkward. We'll need to communicate with our assistants or devices with our thoughts.
According to several researchers, such an advance is not far away.
"The ability to control a robotic arm with just thoughts, with an RF signal and a chip in a woman's brain has already been demonstrated," Melroy said. "It doesn't yet send signals back, but that will happen and it will close that loop. We are just not that far away from this ability to think things. It sounds like magic, but it's all about electrical brain signals."