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When I start talking about artificial intelligence, robotics or really any modern or futuristic-sounding technology, I typically get one of three reactions. Either the listener’s eyes glaze over with confused boredom or they leap to one of two extremes: robots and all that stuff are nowhere near to being, and may never be, a threat to our way of life; or the exact opposite: robots and AI are actively destroying our economy, poisoning our minds and bending our will to the whims of corporations, governments or maybe aliens.
So, which is it? Is the sky falling? Or as King Solomon purportedly said, is there “nothing new under the sun”?
I believe the answer is somewhere in between.
Let’s consider the position of those who pooh-pooh any fears of societal threats from technology. It is, indeed, true that humans quite often make mountains out of molehills where technology is concerned. There hasn’t been a generation since the dawn of recorded history that hasn’t had a pundit or politician of some sort decry the evils of the latest and greatest technology. Even written language suffered criticism. Socrates is famously quoted as saying it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories, they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves” – which echoes in the words of every pre-iPhone math teacher as they warned, “You’re not always going to be carrying a calculator around.”
The pundits of the past share the same flair for the dramatic as their contemporary counterparts. Radio distracted children, and it gave them nightmares; watching too much TV would rot your brain; and of course, what parent in the world today isn’t concerned for their child on social media? My point is humans don’t like change.
So, score one for the pooh-poohers. Humans often overreact to new things. That’s fair.
Now, let’s talk about the doom-dumpers. First, we need to understand some things about computing technology. To oversimplify a convoluted topic, more transistors equal more computing power. In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted the number of transistors able to be squeezed onto a microchip would double approximately every two years, leading to exponential increases in computing power and decreases in cost. This prediction has largely held true over the years, leading to rapid advancements. Just under 60 years from Moore’s prediction, personal computers and other high-powered digital computing devices such as smartphones and watches have become necessities of modern life.
Moore’s law is seen as a modern contributing factor to what nerds like me call exponential technological growth, i.e., the more technology we discover, the faster we discover more new technologies.
Consider that it took us at least 50,000 years to go from spoken language to written language, but it only took us about 50 years to go from flying on earth to flying in space.
The future is coming at us fast and at an accelerating rate. Score one for the doom-dumpers.
So, which is it? I believe it’s both and neither. Our future lies unrevealed to us. However, as with all technology from fire to firearms, we should proceed cautiously, and in a spirit of collaboration. There are absolutely plausible scenarios that could arise in which humans go extinct due to the proliferation of AI. I believe we are passing through a period of human history on par with the discovery of language and nuclear fission combined. The outcome of our decisions, and the decisions of our leaders, could easily lead to mass destruction that extends even beyond our own planet and out into the cosmos.
Conversely, we could also use these new tools to heal the world and the rifts we’ve created among ourselves. We could generate untold wealth and near-unlimited resources, eventually building a world where our lives are whatever we want them to be, a world of ultimate individual freedom where every decision we make is restricted only by our desires and imagination.
I have a hopeful vision of the future. But it will take massive, coordinated efforts to curb the devastating effects of what has long been predicted to be a Fourth Industrial Revolution. And if we manage to survive that, there’s still the matter of just simply getting along with each other and possibly getting along with human-level artificial general intelligence(s) as well.
It is true that the hurdles are high. But considering the tenuous nature of our existence in the first place, I’m betting on humanity.
Gabriel Cassady is co-owner of creative agency 2 Oddballs LLC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SBJ interviews the interim dean at the William H. Darr College of Agriculture at Missouri State University.