Big Brother has always been watching us, except that these days, he does it far more efficiently and thoroughly. After all, he is online, meaning he can access our e-mails, bank statements, phone calls and social media posts. He can also easily structure the information he retrieves to produce reports on how valuable specific individuals are for society. And it is going to get worse. Because soon assembly lines in factories will be “manned” by emotionless robots. The few, chosen ones that will get to keep their jobs will be subjugated to the decisions of taciturn metal-encased supervisors with very few humanoid features. Their speech synthesizers, cameras and their ability to process natural language will enable them to ask us questions, monitor our behavior and keep track of our efficiency. To what end? To assess whether we are still fit for purpose.
Neither will we find relief in our smart homes. Surveillance will grow ever more permanent and pervasive, extending even to our bedrooms and bathrooms. Wall-embedded sensors will follow our every move. Our morning cough will be noticed and instantly reported to our health insurer. The pharmacist will prepare the relevant medicine ahead of our arrival. Even our beloved self-driving cars will lull us into lowering our guard. They will unwittingly transform us from drivers to passive passengers, left at the mercy of the computer under the hood. And that computer will be busy, constantly processing algorithms. Algorithms of life and death that will determine whether we have the right to live in this neatly arranged society.
I am still myself
Dear reader. I am not being paranoid, nor suffering from a nervous breakdown. My blog account has not been hacked and these words really come from me, not an anarchist movement leader. I like the Black Mirror series and don’t believe it is a documentary. To my knowledge, my life has hardly changed from yesterday. I still work at a company staffed by nearly zero robots, although with a substantially higher automation level. I can go for extended periods without social media, although I find it fairly difficult. On Saturdays, I switch off my cell phone, relax in a forest, and often pay with cash in restaurants or stores.
This, however, is the unusual way I have chosen to begin yet another post on artificial intelligence. It concerns the myths on AI found in the media, on the web and in all of our heads. Causing fears which, I dare to say, are largely groundless.
MYTH 1. We will be watched constantly
It is indeed true – big data will enable us to rapidly access data on any topic. As rapid information is the future, only companies capable of retrieving it faster than others will survive on the market. It is possible that computers with specifications matching those of IBM’s Watson will one day populate every office and answer our EVERY question. This may not be all that desirable from our viewpoint.
Does this mean changes in the privacy protection law? Will the kinds of situations in which we can expect to retain our anonymity become considerably fewer? Will we be required to use social media, and will we be prevented from switching off our smartphones? Will we be FORCED to pack our homes with electronics? None of those are foregone conclusions: yes, technology is going to AUTOMATE the majority of social contexts and affect our decisions.
Obviously, as the digital culture moves forward, we become vulnerable and are subject to certain mechanisms that digitize our lives. That is why we should choose some of our behaviors in a more informed manner. When cars became commonplace, we had to accept the fact that we would have to be particularly cautious when crossing a road.
Big data, big threats?
MYTH 2. Robots will take our jobs
Some jobs are just asking to be robotized. Does it make sense for humans to prepare hundreds of thousands of packages in a shipping company’s warehouse? Can an enterprise that saves money by using robots not create other jobs by training qualified personnel that will serve customers online? Savings from employing robots and drones may finance the development of quite a few industries, or be redistributed to society to reduce deficiencies.
Robots will not be able to build relationships in companies, provide soft incentives to workers, come up with creative concepts or, not for a long time at least, draw constructive conclusions. Neither will they be able to sell creative ideas to managements. Out of many industries, only a few will really be able to benefit from the opportunities presented by robotization.
MYTH 3. Algorithm errors will spark chaos
Granted, there have been cases of computers ascribing specific information or features to wrong people. Some such errors have been racially biased. There were also people who lost their driving licenses after being mistakenly blamed for having caused an accident. One can also show that conscious manipulation of information can significantly affect political choices.
But then do information transmissions, structuring and use have to be perfect? I don’t know where the idea that the digital ecosphere must be free of errors and dangers came from.
I have already written that algorithms can be wrong at times. Their errors may even become more common, and that simply has to be considered. One must therefore mainly trust one’s senses, thorough analysis and common sense.
Or perhaps we should CHOOSE definitively that, as humans, we MAY never allow machines to think or do things for us? As human beings, we have an existential duty to remain self-reliant.
MYTH 4 We will become half-robot, half-human
One of our characteristics as a species is pessimism. Pessimism is useful, perhaps even necessary. Without a doubt, many great books would never have been written and many incredible movies would never have been made without it. There would be no intriguing stories about the inevitable downfall of civilization at the hands of machines. Or, in fact, at the hands of organisms that combine computers with the human brain.
However, all such theories about our minds gaining a new dimension thanks to implants under our skin are just that – theories. Will nanorobots circulating in our bloodstream “digitize” us for good, and will our brains really become permanently linked to the Internet? The matter is neither as simple nor as graphic as the excellent movie Transcendence would suggest. Its protagonist is reborn in a “digital” form after his death. Maybe this will remain in the realm of the theoretical, because we will be unable to fit some pieces of this futuristic technological puzzle into the rest of the picture?
The outstanding futurologist Ray Kurzweil, whom I have mentioned on multiple occasions, likes to describe himself as an optimist. He claims that we are entering the era of post-humanism. This, in a nutshell, carries massive implications for our ontological status and what we will become. As a species, we are ceasing to be human, while artificial intelligence may become one of the many forms of life on Earth.
Ray Kurzweil: The Coming Singularity
While respecting such reflections and scenarios, I also remain humble in cognitive terms. I believe that we are UNABLE to predict the SPECIFIC consequences of the fact that computers will think faster than us within a few years.
Besides, when in doubt, I remember there is still someone like Elon Musk. He is one of the central figures influencing the development of our civilization and a person who is keeping a cool head. Despite the crazy ideas he deploys, he has never lost sight of the threats we may be facing along the way. He warns us against them while doing his thing, confident we will use the opportunities to become better beings. As people. And all this thanks to… robots, drones, autonomous vehicles and space travel.