Heirarchy, Lifestyle, Technology

Does AI Spell the End of the Human Race?

image courtesy of www.vpnsrus.com

Applications of Artificial Intelligence surround our everyday lives, from the exemplary to the critical. But does the rise of AI mean the fall of humanity? In this lighthearted romp, the ‘For’ side argues (with supreme irony) that through our own choices, we are destined to enslavement by AI. ‘Against’ asserts that this deterministic perspective is needlessly pessimistic. With any luck, the latter is proven correct.

Yes. The Tyranny of Perfect Rationality Leaves No Room for Humanity

It’s been nearly four years since Google’s AI beat Go master Lee Sedol at his own game.  While most of us probably can’t remember where we were or what we were doing when this particular victory of machine over man occurred, the event will surely go down in history as a frontier crossing as momentous as the Moon Landing.

Lee’s loss demonstrated that given enough information, Artificial Intelligence can beat human intuition.  It might have shown us that for all its enchanted conveniences, a pact with AI is greasy with the fingerprints of Faust and that we are slouching toward our own obsolescence. 

Whether or not you are aware of it, every click of your mouse, every clack of your keyboard, every swipe, every slip of your thumb, is logged, forever, to the great Pantheon of Preference in the Sky and used to determine what information you will next be served, and what options will be severed. 

Like a bonsai master pruning a Cyprus, AI limits shapes our choices, reinforces our thinking, and incidentally radicalises our beliefs.  No casual malevolence in the programme is required, simply an orientation toward maximum efficiency: find the pattern, deliver the payload.  Rinse.  Repeat.

Let’s call it The Tyranny of Perfect Rationality.  Having schooled the AI it in the ways of our human biases, we cut the pattern for a straight-jacket and invite the AI to strap us in. 

If you’ve ever attempted to escape the confines of your own filter bubble, you understand how persistent this patterning can be.  Delete your search history, clear your cache, set up a VPN, switch to a privacy-oriented search engine, and survey the new borders of your reality only to find … they look much like the old one.  Albeit with fewer ads. 

This apparent ability for AI to override human instruction, if not intention, is evident in the dastardly dance of auto-correct.  Foreign terminology, slang or impromptu portmanteaus result in a thumb war where it’s made evident you are not in charge.  At least, not in the way you used to be.

In his book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari defines humans by our ability to make meaning, to tell stories. As AI narrows our spectrum of choice, engineers our behaviour, eliminates our jobs, herds us into virtual communities and brave new modes of living, will we lose the capacity (or the desire) to question Why? Will we cease cooking up narratives that help us make sense of the world? Will we still be human?

Like a sophisticated dung beetle rolling its booty, we scroll, swipe and tap toward the singularity, apparently blind to our final destination on the woodpile, yet in thrall to its essential gravity. How quickly we get there remains to be seen.  But one thing remains clear, whether we’re regular Joes or masters of Go, AI has already made unpaid interns of us all.  


No. AI Will Simply Save Us from the Menial & Mundane

Life imitates art.

Maybe that should be ‘imaginary life imitates inspired, original art’.

There is a rich seam of creative work around the theme of the triumph of machine over mankind. In this oeuvre, the hapless human creates, and is ultimately enslaved, by the machine that learns faster than s/he does,

There is a grain of truth to this. In manufacturing settings, robots replicate actions accurately, faultlessly, and never tire. They pick goods in warehouses and organise to deliver them by drone if the packages are small enough. It’s hard to beat a decent robot when it comes to repetitive, low-skill jobs.

However, advances in AI also equip computers to fight battles, fill prescriptions, farm the land and perform routine customer service jobs in banking, retailing and in the legal and accountancy professions. And computers play fantastic chess.

Yikes. So is it our destiny to be usurped by a machine?

This is the patent delusion that is technological determinism. Or, in plain English, the idea that human actions are shaped inevitably by technological capability. According to the deterministic mind-set, as technology evolves, social structure and cultural values follow in lock-step.

Happily, humans have proven themselves to be simultaneously more resilient, more creative and more adaptive to technological change than a purely deterministic approach might suggest. We bend technology to our free will, far more than the other way around. So, although we invented weapons of mass destruction so fearsome as to create a threat to our essential survival, we have, so far, managed to rein in their use through the power of human intellect and good sense.

In a lighter vein, we, not the innovators, manufacturers or marketers, decide which everyday innovations we adopt and how we put them to use. As far back as the 1980’s, the Sony Walkman was conceived as a device with one earpiece each for shared listening between two people. It rapidly gained traction as a private listening device, much to the evident surprise of the manufacturer. 

More recent examples of consumer creativity include the phenomenon of ‘user generated content’ in social media. Consider the clever ways in which users have bent the You Tube, Facebook and Twitter platforms to their will. Or observe the desire from people to co-create products or experiences with the manufacturers or service providers involved.

This hardly suggests a passive human race ready and willing to be enslaved by ever more sophisticated robots. Rather, it suggests a continuation of what has happened with and through technology down through the centuries. Clever humans produce new technologies that change the context of social life, while at the same time making new possibilities available to those willing and able to embrace them. These technologies are bent and shaped by human will for the betterment of themselves and those around them.

So it will be with AI. This exciting technology already adds greatly to the potential quality of human existence. Ultimately, however, it is we humans who will choose when, where and how this technology is to be applied and in what form this will happen.

Far from spelling doom for humanity, AI offers the real possibility of a better quality of life for all who have access to it. After all, tech-utopianism sounds so much more hopeful than tech-determinism, doesn’t it?