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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Reflections on AI on the human landscape

There are so many historic iterations of the opening of Pandora’s Box, pouring the many frightening “evils” into the world, (albeit along with hope). The latest might be the surge of Artificial Intelligence onto the technological landscape.

“Sold” as a significant “benefit” to the human race, AI nevertheless has the potential to overrun the human capacity to keep it “under human control”. The word is out that the U.S. military has commissioned a fleet of autonomous transport vehicles, raising the spectre of those vehicles eventually carrying a missile into “enemy” territory. A “perfect strike” has already been achieved, in research, by an autonomous virtual aircraft, repeatedly driving itself into a “target,”   while repeatedly killing everyone on board. Artificial Intelligence, by its nature, “learns” its programmed “goal” and then proceeds to accomplish that goal, without regard to any of the “human” implications.

All warnings about the need to slow down the research and development Artificial Intelligence, even from futurist thinkers like Elon Musk, have gone unheeded by those charged with such social, political, economic and cultural responsibility. We are not only awash in technology; we are not merely enmeshed in its gleam; we are apparently addicted to its opioid-like power to seduce us and render our better judgements etherized on the floors of our cutting-edge laboratories.

Already having unleashed social media devices “to bring us together” although they really generate significantly enhanced loneliness and depression, medical devices that were purportedly going to enhance the lives of people in their need, drones and cruise missiles that so sanitize the killing of all targets in their sights, manipulated as they are from thousands of miles distant from their firings, we are clearly prepared to take our hands off the “steering wheel” of this revolution. And leading the way into the new “world,” of course, is the military establishment with its massive impact on the United States’ national budget. “National Security” and “family protection” of course, eclipse “warfare” in the public relations spin of all activities military. And there seems to be no bounds on the level of permission the American people are prepared to defer to “defence” against foreign enemies, even surpassing the public goods of health care, education, environmental protection and poverty reduction.

Sycophancy at the altar of technology, as opposed to genuflections at the altar of the Almighty, illustrates and proves a degree of deep and long-seeded fear and loathing about our readiness to hand control to “another” ANY other, including a machine. Therapists spend hours learning about locus of control issues, whereby humans willingly, if unconsciously, hand over the control of our lives to another, whether that “other” is a parent, teacher, boss, or organization and recently a piece of technology. 

Power released to an agency other than ourselves can and will always redound against those engaged in the release. Unworthiness, in our genuflections to “experts,” and in our genuflections to authorities, only generates more feelings of unworthiness. It also unleashes a level of co-dependence, while releasing us from responsibility for our own decisions, thereby “permitting” the kind of projection of which we are all too familiar.

It is not that technology, including the spectre of Artificial Intelligence, does not hold a myriad of rainbow pot‘o’gold benefits. Cleaning floors, welding bolts, recording and transmitting information, research, medical diagnoses and even treatments, guarding front and back doors of homes, surveiling public spaces for unwanted and illicit events, linking all corners of the planet to a real-time reporting of events, both dangerous and inventive are just some of them. And, the community of engineers, visionaries, soft-ware developers and their supportive corporate and educational sponsors are certainly justified in their pride of accomplishment, not to mention the financial dividends of their investment of time and dollars.

Especially felicitous in meeting personal conveniences, as well as top-down organizational/governmental/corporate systems, the gestalt of technological devices, nevertheless, needs, even demands, a creative, mature and detailed set of responses that could/would/must hedge against its domination, and potential destructive advances. It is the interface of the human species with this galloping frontier, unlike the frontier on the ground that motivated and generated the westward advance of the population, land development and eventual cities that became the U.S.A., that troubles most observers.

The human capacity, discipline and restraint to withhold excesses of ambition, greed, impatience, and all opportunities to seize power (in whatever might be the latest iteration), however, as disclosed by centuries of human history, are so tragically MIA, that more than this scribe are uttering laments, even dirges, of anxiety. As with most of our human encounters, there is the great likelihood that we do now, and will continue long into the future both to adore the technology, and to fear its dangerous potential.

Add to our individual and collective responses to the technology directly, the prospect that those in control of its development, sale and distribution are also “infected” with those same human demons that originally poured from Pandora’s Box: greed, insouciance, deception, pride and indifference, among many others.

It is in our capacity to “hope”…the beginning of planning, and the promise of a brighter future, and the candle of faith that our species has to place its trust. Etheral, ephemeral, subjective and immeasureable, hope nevertheless casts both a lamp and a mirror into the darkness of any night of anxiety.
Leonard Cohen’s Anthem reminds us,

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack  in everything
 that’s how the light gets in.

And in his explication of the poem, Cohen says, “there is a crack in everything that you can put together: physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.” (from the Quartz website, previously published on a fan site.)

Could we ever actually consider less, slower, more modest and more regulated as the light of hope, another hopeful paradox, given the current penchant for more, faster, more extreme and no regulation?

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