Does all the hype about AI sound just a little too familiar? If you’re old enough to remember the first beginnings of the Internet and the dotcom bubble, you might also remember the tsunami of hype that attended these events as they unfolded. Wired magazine made endlessly breathless predictions about how the Internet would transform humanity and bring about a technologically-driven utopia. Now we’re wrestling with how such a promising technology devolved into a netherworld of hacking, hate speech, exploitation of personal data, “dark webs”, misinformation, political chicanery, and citizen surveillance despite these glowing promises. In the latest twist, AI is being sold in a similar way by similar players and the cultural amnesia is impressive.
In the early nineties, I had the unusual experience of being the first journalist to write about the advent of the Internet. The genesis was that Vinton Cerf, “the father of the Internet”, was on the advisory board for a technology magazine where I was a staff editor. Vint had sent me an email describing how a Department of Defense network would soon be commercialized and available for public use. We ran an article breaking the news about this exciting development—the birth of the public Internet. The articles ran three months before the New York Times broke the story. It was from this vantage point that I watched the Internet hype bubble expand for almost a decade—not just in technology publications but in the mainstream media as well.
The Technology Hype Machine
What’s past is prologue. The non-stop torrent of hype about AI is now taking us down the same path but with an important difference. While the Internet did, in fact, provide democratizing benefits by empowering users and still continues to do so, AI is a far more exotic and inaccessible technology. As such, it will be developed and controlled by well-funded and powerful organizations, whether the same Silicon Valley giants that have already been exposed as trampling over the rights of their users or corporations that will use it to exert more repressive control over employees.
As an editorial in The Economist gushed: “Using AI, managers can gain extraordinary control over their employees. Amazon has patented a wristband that tracks the hand movements of warehouse workers and uses vibrations to nudge them into being more efficient. Workday, a software firm, crunches around 60 factors to predict which employees will leave. Humanyze, a startup, sells smart ID badges that can track employees around the office and reveal how well they interact with colleagues.” Is the workplace of the future sounding like fun yet?
Giving corporations powerful and manipulative technology tools to intrude even more deeply into the personal lives of consumers and employees and then analyze that data for financial gain is a dangerous combination and a blueprint for dystopia. As was the case with the Internet, I believe that AI will end up providing some important benefits if and when used ethically and thoughtfully. But it also has the potential to do a lot of harm. Witness, for example, the “psychopathic AI” being developed by MIT students.
"I would argue that not only is technology changing society and culture for the worse in some areas of life, but that this shift is not just cultural but ontological."
My sense as a futurist, however, is that there’s also some good news here: Internet users are becoming wiser and more guarded about the unintended consequences of technologies that lure us in but then exact a steep price. The first wave of a user revolt came in the vigorous pushback that monopoly-provider Facebook received after its egregious privacy transgressions were revealed. I believe that over time, and as they come to better understand the implications, people will begin to reject AI applications and programs that are offensive, exploitative, and dehumanizing. In this sense, corporatized AI will eventually fail as some kind of utopian platform for the common good, just as the Internet in many cases has become a tool for subtly institutionalizing social and economic advantage. Here are some observations about how and why I think this will happen:
AI will create widespread dehumanization and depersonalization. The rise of computing in everyday life has already created a “mediated society” as I described in Digital Mythologies. Here in the US, citizens often find themselves relating to each other not directly but through some sort of mediated digital experience. Over time, these dehumanizing experiences can chip away at our sense of humanity and have profound cultural effects. However, many are now waking up to the Faustian bargain of having an AI-precursor technology such as Alexa cater to our every whim, on the one hand, while robbing us of privacy and personal freedom on the other and making us fully dependent on hyper-technology for the essentials of life.
In my opinion, a fully implemented AI world is unlikely to happen because humans now have a powerful desire to reconnect with the natural world, undo the massive harm that’s been done to the planet in the name of progress, and reclaim their independence from the subtle chokehold, de facto dependency, and limited range of personal choice that characterizes a mechanistic, technology-driven lifestyle. Technology is here to stay but only those systems, products, and services that don’t impede this goal will ultimately succeed.
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AI will make people dumber and more dependent on “the system”. When calculators first came out, students who used them eventually began to forget how to add subtract and divide. Their skills simply atrophied. Now that the use of Google search is widespread, it’s been observed that Internet users no longer feel it necessary to remember either history and or basic facts because they can be so easily looked up. Some observers think that this is making us less intelligent and changing the patterns of how we think. In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr observed: “The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible… but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when repeated frequently.”
There are other points to consider. Many of us no longer use maps because GPS makes them unnecessary. But without a map you no longer have a cognitive sense of your own surroundings. There’s no need to pay attention to where you are physically. This notion of physically is incredibly important. In a very subtle way, a person gives up a little of their independence of thought to a machine and becomes a less skillful negotiator of life’s terrain, both literally and figuratively. That aspect of life becomes an abstraction, a fog of unknowing. In losing touch with your surroundings, you also lose touch with the natural world, already a hazard of living in an advanced Western nation.
I would argue that not only is technology changing society and culture for the worse in some areas of life, but that this shift is not just cultural but ontological. AI and the overuse or inappropriate use of computer technology has the potential to remove us from the natural world and to literally abstract as well as distract us from our surroundings. This can include people, places, and the fullness of many life experiences (Think of a traveler glued to their smartphone while strolling through the streets of Paris.) In making this existential shift, AI will also make humans more dependent on their systems, less self-reliant, less intelligent, and less educated in the traditional sense of education as a way of apprehending and appreciating the world at large. Intelligence will be valued, but primarily in machines, not humans and in those who develop and own the most capable machines who will become the new “masters of the universe”. Wisdom, as we now know it, will be diminished because it is not a programmable attribute.
AI will increasingly be used as means of social control. AI is very sophisticated and powerful technology. Following the pattern of social Darwinism that has characterized much of the Silicon Valley’s initiatives to date, it confers power on those who direct its aims. This makes it a very different animal than the Internet which, for all its flaws, still manages to empower individuals. Who are the powerful entities that will end up controlling and dispensing AI? No surprise—corporations that can afford to buy and perfect this technology and also governments using it to track the lives and movements of citizens.
Authoritarian countries such as China will be the first to perfect this. In China, AI is already being used to implement a social acceptability score that ranks the “value” of its citizens to the government and determines to what extent the citizen is eligible for government-provided benefits.
As described in an article in Fast Company: “By 2020, the country plans to give all its 1.4. billion citizens a personal score, based on how they behave…The government started working on its so-called social credit system back in 2014, which ranks citizens on their trustworthiness, including whether they jaywalk, buy Chinese-made products, what they post online, and whether they smoke in nonsmoking areas. Those deemed trustworthy can get discounts on energy bills and better interest rates at banks, while those considered untrustworthy can reportedly be stopped from buying property and even high-speed internet.”
While there may be no short term cure for how AI is being applied in authoritarian regimes, the most optimistic perspective is that dystopian uses of AI will eventually be resisted in Western democracies. The hope is that this will happen as citizens become increasingly less starry-eyed and more well informed about who really benefits from these technologies and how, and over the course of time, they have the potential to greatly diminish the quality of life.