A couple of weeks ago, that immobile genius, Stephen Hawking, stood (sat?) before a packed lecture room at Cambridge University, one of the world’s most prestigious educational institutions, and told those in attendance that artificial intelligence will either be the greatest or the worst thing to ever befall humanity.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when one of the planet’s most brilliant minds, one that just happens to be owned by an astrophysicist (an astrophysicist!), gives you its opinion, I tend to listen. I think he’s right, or half right, at least. Because while I can’t possibly imagine A.I. being the crowning achievement of human civilization, I can definitely see it being the worst, and I cower under my blanket whenever I read about tech giants like Google and Microsoft investing money and manpower into their A.I. projects.
Climate change aside, A.I. is my primary source of pessimism and existential anxiety. Reassuringly, Hawking has suggested that the latter could prove useful to combating the former, stating: “Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one – industrialization. And surely we will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty,” but that will only happen if this all-or-nothing A.I. gamble actually comes off.
The only other alternative, if Hawking’s reasoning proves true, is the sort of dystopian future depicted in sci-fi movies like The Terminator or The Matrix – there can be no middle ground when “best” and “worst” are the only possible outcomes.
Those that dismiss sci-fi as exactly that, fiction, ignore that the fictional element of sci-fi is a lot closer to the realms of possibility than, say, Game of Thrones. Sci-fi is a projection of our contemporary hopes or fears onto the blank canvas of a potential future. Dragons never existed, but when a computer can beat a chess champion, being overpowered by self-conscious technology like in I, Robot can’t possibly be ruled out as pure fantasy.
The likes of Elon Musk and other Silicon Valley brainiacs think that there’s a one-in-a-billion possibility that our so-called reality is actually a Matrix-esque computer simulation. There’s an ever-so-tiny possibility that the Wachowski brothers (now sisters) weren’t simply flexing their creative muscles, but punching at reality’s fourth wall. If we can’t laugh that one off with absolute certainty, then don’t tell me not to freak da fuq out over A.I.
My fears aren’t mere abstract anxieties either. They’re not driven by the unknown, but by the present. Let’s look at the last epoch-changing technological development: the internet. The tech utopians of the late 20th century saw the incoming digital revolution as a liberating force, one that would dismantle the old power structures that oppress us and help humanity build a new, more perfect society. It’s painfully clear now that their hypothesis was laughably naive.
Who, exactly, has the internet liberated? Silicon Valley tech tycoons and advertisers aside, it has decimated the music, film and publishing industries, slashed the earnings of musicians, writers, photographers, and just about every other professional whose product can be digitized, shrinking their industries, killing off job openings, and maiming job security.
I’m a staff writer here at Highsnobiety, but I might as well be a unicorn, that’s how rare my job title is in digital journalism. For years before I got this job I worked as a freelancer, because most publications will only hire editors. Great writers don’t necessarily make great editors and vice versa. If I don’t have what it takes to be an editor, then my only career options are ever-so-scarce staff writer jobs or the pitch-by-pitch, hand-to-mouth existence of a freelancer – both of which pay considerably less than in the pre-digital era.
Masses of people in varying industries are faced with the same prospects. Those employed in the tech industry-inspired “gig economy,” like Uber drivers or Deliveroo deliveroos, have it even worse, enduring disgraceful conditions that could be reasonably described as neo-Victorian.
Sure, the web has created new online industries, with front-end developers, coders, and all other sorts of programmers benefitting greatly, but this is a very small bump in employment when compared to what has been lost. The Arab Spring may have been organized on the Internet, but as Adam Curtis pointed out in his recent movie, HyperNormalisation, while social media is useful for rallying people, it ultimately achieves no end result, if we look to the political situation in the Middle East and even the fate of the Occupy movement in the West as examples.
This is no different to the effect that automation and the outsourcing of labor had on manufacturing and the working classes that depended on it. It has widely been reported that A.I. threatens to render a sizable number of both white and blue collar jobs obsolete, replacing everyone from truck drivers to lawyers and even sex workers.
Silicon Valley, for all its nu-hippie posturing and cutesy slogans like “don’t be evil,” is dominated by libertarians, free-market fundamentalists and deregulation extremists.
The likes of Apple pay close to zero tax on their European earnings. It is laughable to think that A.I. pioneers will have any interest in protecting the jobs that their creations will replace or addressing the wave of redundancies that they will no doubt unleash.
I mean, Silicon Valley is hardly a bastion of ethical behavior: as Edward Snowden revealed, tech companies enable state spy agencies like the NSA and GCHQ to keep tabs on all of us. Google can literally mould your perception of the world by fixing search results, putting information out of your reach. Despite having an unthreatening, geeky face, the tech industry is politically no different to banking: neither want checks or balances that will protect the middle and working classes because that would stifle their ability to make obscene profits.
In the 1970s, the financial regulations that were put in place after the Great Depression with the aim of preventing another stock market crash were repealed, which predictably led to yet another crash in 2008. This was all because some already-rich people decided that being obscenely rich wasn’t enough for them, and they could only be satisfied by being infinitely rich.
Unchecked free-market greed has led us into this situation where Trump is in with a chance of being U.S. president and where far-right parties are on the rise in Europe, having already claimed one major victory with Britain’s vote to leave the EU. There is nothing to suggest that Silicon Valley will attempt to mitigate the socio-economic fallout that A.I. will create if it chips away at their revenue at all.
But looking beyond politics and economics, can we really say that the rise of the web has been good for us socially? Studies suggest that social media is detrimental to our mental health. I will bury anyone that tries to tell me that it isn’t a complete and utter waste of time. There is nothing personally or intellectually worthwhile to be gained from time spent on social media. Nothing. It gives us the illusion of being connected to other people, but in reality makes us more lonely by depriving us of the flesh and touch of real-world interaction that is physiologically essential to us as living organisms.
The internet has fucked with our attention spans, it disconnects us from reality by nudging us to incessantly check our phones in social situations, and gives many of us an inferiority complex by allowing us to compare our own lives to the falsely curated ones that other people project via Facebook.
I should probably take a minute to write a preemptive riposte for all the readers that will no doubt call me a hypocrite in the comment section for using the internet to complain about the internet. Of course the internet isn’t wholly terrible. It has made my job much easier. Netflix is great. I’m told that there’s an abundance of easily-accessible pornography out there, which is must be pretty swell if you’re into that sort of thing. The infinite database of online cooking recipes available on the web has definitely improved my life, as have restaurant guides. But if you think that someone can’t use the internet without expressing profound misgivings for it, then I can’t say I’m impressed by your intellectual capabilities.
For those that think I’m getting sidetracked here with an anti-web rant, don’t worry, I’m about to tie this all back to A.I. in a second. These terrible side effects of internet use all stem from humanity’s complete lack of self-control, or rather a culture where people aren’t expected to show any restraint.
Do we really have to reply to WhatsApp messages at the dinner table? No we don’t. We simply choose to surrender to impulse because it’s easier than fighting it. Think about how frustrated many of you (myself included) get when your Internet connection drops out for 15 minutes on a weekend afternoon. There are so many alternatives to scrolling incessantly through Instagram: read a books, take a stroll, have a lie down, whatever. But instead we huff and curse and furrow our brows because we’re so hopelessly addicted to the internet and our phones.
Can we really be trusted to not get creepily obsessive over A.I. sex bots when they finally hit the market? I don’t think so. Artificial Intelligence is one Pandora’s Box that is undoubtably best left unopened.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
- Lead Image: Terminator 2: Judgement Day