Our Headlong Rush into…what?

I wrote about Artificial Intelligence (AI) last year, and I am going to revisit it, in fact, I may revisit it many times in future. There have been developments since: General Motors is shutting its traditional production lines in favour of investments in autonomous car technology, algorithms are moving into contextual search rather than key-word search, and Google is following me,serving up stories and products based on my search history without me even asking. This shit is getting real, as they say!  

Mankind is hard coded to always search for the next frontier, even if it means plunging into the abyss. When sailing ships first sailed, those die-hard sailors who had God in their hearts and Gold on their minds were warned that the earth was flat and that they would fall off the edge, and yet they persevered to circumnavigate the planet, discover new lands, plant their god’s cross on them,and return with untold riches. When man was learning to fly, he was warned that he’d fall off the cliff and perish, and yet he donned wings, and later sat in winged craft, crashing and failing until the Wright brothers got the formula right. And now with computers, once considered workhorses for crunching data,we are ignoring the warnings and allowing them to take over our most personal tasks, leaving us free to do…what? That “what” is still to be determined but in the meantime we continue to place trust in this inanimate cruncher of bits and bytes and offload work to it.

GM’s bet that self-driving cars will replace manual ones is a bold one. Would this be similar to the erroneous bet placed not so long ago that e-books would fully replace tree-books? Is there no factoring in for customer preference, for the fallibility of chips and software, or for the driver’s desire to control his own destiny in a collision scenario? Would I trust an autonomous car to navigate me out of a scenario where there are crazy road hogs (let’s add “drunk”and/or  “drugged”) driving manual cars?Would I spend hours on the road waiting for my car to get “refueled” with electricity? Safety is being touted, but at the same time, these computer controlled cars are not immune to hacking and theft like their manual counterparts. And what price point will drive people to convert? The greedy experiments in hybrids and first generation electric cars failed as prices for these vehicles were gougingly higher than for conventional ones. Or would some governmental agency end the debate and decry “Henceforth, you will only drive an autonomous vehicle”—unlikely in a western democracy where everyone has an opinion.

The context-based search capability in algorithms may provide some benefits,especially to job seekers. No longer would they have to rig their resumes with repeated key words to enable the screening software to select them; now they could write a regular (truthful) resume and trust that the holistic picture of their job experience would be up for consideration. But…and this is a big BUT…who knows what level of contextual learning that screening software is at?Would it compare to the level of a seasoned, thirty-year veteran in Human Resources? Would it pick up on body language, appearance, and reactions to impromptu questions; and on the nuances of language spoken in different parts of the world—Xerox vs. copy, Hoover vs. vacuum cleaner, Kleenex vs. tissue—for there is American English, Canadian English, Indian English, Australian English and a host of other accents in addition to the old British Standard English.  I’m told that this contextual learning is filtering into other fields as well: travel, news, customer service, to name a few, all at the experimental level today, but in our“forward-fix” culture it is a very short step from development to production due to investor impatience to monetize the asset.

Google, Facebook, Goodreads, and other sites of which I am a frequent visitor are following me, and it is beginning to get creepy. It’s as if I have my personal gaggle of CCTV cameras dragging behind. I dare not visit an X rated, Alt-Right,or Nihilistic site, even for research, for I would get associated, tagged and fed their drivel. Conversely, I could trick these sites into developing the wrong profile of me, or create many personas of myself in their universes and contribute to the realm of fake news; I could become a rabid right winger, a lambasting left winger, a preachy poet (I’m told that poetry is the easiest to plagiarize for there are tons of verses posted everywhere in the public domain), a pious priest (the entire Bible is up on the web), a progressive painter (more free stuff)…the list goes on.

Yuval Noah Harrari, author of the 2018 bestseller 21 Lessons for the 21st Century paints a starker picture. To summarize some of his visions of the future: “Artificial Intelligence is developing rapidly to the point of learning how to manipulate our feelings. Algorithms are waiting to hack us, not our phones or laptops, and this will come about when the merger of info-tech and bio tech takes place, when technology is able to go inside our bodies and not operate only at the surface level as it does today. The rise of the robot will render us ‘useless.’ Relearning and retraining for new jobs will exhaust us, as it’s pace will only increase. Even Universal Basic Income will be ineffective unless it is applied across the globe simultaneously. Human-robot collaboration, that could delay this tsunami, will ultimately swing in favour of the robot, as machine-learning enables the robot to learn faster and deliver more accurately than humans. On the chopping block for redundancy are doctors, engineers, equipment operators,sales people, clerks…”

So,yet again we are sailing into the great beyond, on the good ship AI this time.We have no thought to the number of people we may throw out of work, no thought for the many failed investments before a nugget of usefulness if unearthed, no thought for the road fatalities this bold experiment will yield. No one considers the ethical side of this equation: just because something can be done, must it be done? Ethical considerations stopped organ cloning once,can it stop the darker side of AI? The quest to plumb the unknown and unearth the gold is all that seems to drive us, a fierce greed for accomplishment. I have taken a berth on this ship, as an observer and a recorder, because I feel that AI will be fundamental to our existence in the future, and we all have to participate in one form or other whether we like it or not. I can’t do more than hold up the mirror, ask the question, sound the warning when needed, and hope we don’t end up in a shipwreck.

Welcome aboard!

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