Tuesday, June 6, 2023

The apocalypse isn’t coming. We must resist cynicism and fear about AI | Stephen Marche

In the field of artificial intelligence, doomerism is as natural as an echo. Every development in the field, or to be more precise every development that the public notices, immediately generates an apocalyptic reaction. The fear is natural enough; it comes partly from the lizard-brain part of us that resists whatever is new and strange, and partly from the movies, which have instructed us, for a century, that artificial intelligence will take the form of an angry god that wants to destroy all humanity.

The recent public letter calling for a six-month ban on AI lab work will not have the slightest measurable effect on the development of artificial intelligence, it goes without saying. But it has changed the conversation: every discussion about artificial intelligence must begin with the possibility of total human extinction. It’s silly and, worse, it’s an alibi, a distraction from the real dangers technology presents.

The most important thing to remember about tech doomerism in general is that it’s a form of advertising, a species of hype. Remember when WeWork was going to end commercial real estate? Remember when crypto was going to lead to the abolition of central banks? Remember when the metaverse was going to end meeting people in real life? Silicon Valley uses apocalypse for marketing purposes: they tell you their tech is going to end the world to show you how important they are.

I have been working with and reporting on AI since 2017, which is prehistoric in this field. During that time, I have heard, from intelligent sources who were usually reliable, that the trucking industry was about to end, that China was in possession of a trillion-parameter natural language processing AI with superhuman intelligence. I have heard geniuses – bona fide geniuses – declare that medical schools should no longer teach radiology because it would all be automated soon.

One of the reasons AI doomerism bores me is that it’s become familiar – I’ve heard it all before. To stay sane, I have had to abide by twin principles: I don’t believe it until I see it. Once I see it, I believe it.

Many of the most important engineers in the field indulge in AI doomerism; this is unquestionably true. But one of the defining features of our time is that the engineers – who do not, in my experience, have even the faintest education in the humanities or even recognize that society and culture are worthy of study – simply have no idea how their inventions interact with the world. One of the most prominent signatories of the open letter was Elon Musk, an early investor in OpenAI. He is brilliant at technology. But if you want to know how little he understands about people and their relationships to technology, go on Twitter for five minutes.

Not that there aren’t real causes of worry when it comes to AI; it’s just that they’re almost always about something other than AI. The biggest anxiety – that an artificial general intelligence is about to take over the world – doesn’t even qualify as science fiction. That fear is religious.

Computers do not have will. Algorithms are a series of instructions. The properties that emerge in the “emergent properties” of artificial intelligence have to be discovered and established by human beings. The anthropomorphization of statistical pattern-matching machinery is storytelling; it’s a movie playing in the collective mind, nothing more. Turning off ChatGPT isn’t murder. Engineers who hire lawyers for their chatbots are every bit as ridiculous as they sound.

The much more real anxieties – brought up by the more substantial critics of artificial intelligence – are that AI will super-charge misinformation and will lead to the hollowing out of the middle class by the process of automation. Do I really need to point out that both of these problems predate artificial intelligence by decades, and are political rather than technological?

AI might well make it slightly easier to generate fake content, but the problem of misinformation has never been generation but dissemination. The political space is already saturated with fraud and it’s hard to see how AI could make it much worse. In the first quarter of 2019, Facebook had to remove 2.2bn fake profiles; AI had nothing to do with it. The response to the degradation of our information networks – from government and from the social media industry – has been a massive shrug, a bunch of antiquated talk about the first amendment.

Regulating AI is enormously problematic; it involves trying to fathom the unfathomable and make the inherently opaque transparent. But we already know, and have known for over a decade, about the social consequences of social media algorithms. We don’t have to fantasize or predict the effects of Instagram. The research is consistent and established: that technology is associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety and self-harm among children. Yet we do nothing. Vague talk about slowing down AI doesn’t solve anything; a concrete plan to regulate social media might.

As for the hollowing out of the middle class, inequality in the United States reached the highest level since 1774 back in 2012. AI may not be the problem. The problem may be the foundational economic order AI is entering. Again, vague talk about an AI apocalypse is a convenient way to avoid talking about the self-consumption of capitalism and the extremely hard choices that self-consumption presents.

The way you can tell that doomerism is just more hype is that its solutions are always terminally vague. The open letter called for a six-month ban. What, exactly, do they imagine will happen over those six months? The engineers won’t think about AI? The developers won’t figure out ways to use it? Doomerism likes its crises numinous, preferably unsolvable. AI fits the bill.

Recently, I used AI to write a novella: The Death of an Author. I won’t say that the experience wasn’t unsettling. It was quite weird, actually. It felt like I managed to get an alien to write, an alien that is the sum total of our language. The novella itself has, to me anyway, a hypnotic but removed power – inhuman language that makes sense. But the experience didn’t make me afraid. It awed me. Let’s reside in the awe for a moment, just a moment, before we go to the fear.

If we have to think through AI by way of the movies, can we at least do Star Trek instead of Terminator 2? Something strange has appeared in the sky – let’s be a little more Jean-Luc Picard and a little less Klingon in our response. The truth about AI is that nobody – not the engineers who have created it, not the developers converting it into products – understands fully what it is, never mind what its consequences will be. Let’s get a sense of what this alien is before we blow it out of the sky. Maybe it’s beautiful.

Source link

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Stay Connected

- Advertisement -spot_img

Latest Articles

%d bloggers like this: