11 November 2018

Artificial Intelligence — Savior or Enslaver?

Exponential advancements in technology within the last half century have profoundly reshaped humanity and continue to do so continuously. Concepts which once seemed as fantasy Sci-Fi, visualized through Hollywood hits such as The Terminator (1984) and Eagle Eye (2008) have steadily and inconspicuously become a part of our reality. More recently, the futurist show, Black Mirror (2011) featured on Netflix gives us a glimpse of what the future may hold. One thing in common for all of these shows is the portrayal of possibilities with regards to advancements in computer technology — be it in the form of a highly intelligent, autonomous, sophisticated robot like the Terminator (with a massive capacity for destruction)or ARIIA, a supercomputer able to manipulate almost all connected devices and command its victims to fulfill its agenda.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is seen to be the core driver of current trends within the tech sector and has vastly developed since the term was first coined in the 1950’s. It is embedded in our phones, in the form of online chat bots and as phone operators to name a few contemporary use cases.

In comparison to our biological structure, AI in essence can be understood as our mind which processes information and equips us with the power to analyze. Our mind gets information from our five senses in the form of signals through sight, sound, smell, touch and taste just as AI would receive data points. Over time, our brains are able to understand, comprehend and analyze on a deeper level as we mature. Similarly, AI is based upon Machine Learning (ML) to undergo similar processes. More recently, Deep Learning (DL), largely mimicking the neural networks in our brain are driving exponential advancements in the sophistication of AI bringing it ever closer to human intelligence.

It is not within my domain to explain the intricacies of these revolutionary developments, rather my aim is to show how these processes occur by comparing them to our biological selves in order to understand its underlying forces and capabilities. In my opinion, the ability of our species to learn, think and implement (“I think, therefore I am”) has been the distinguishing factor between man and machine but these lines are getting blurred as time passes by. The discourse is quite polarized; Elon Musk and Jack Ma claim that we will be heading into a dystopian future with the rise of AI even with its non-lethal form expressing great caution while others argue that AI would have an overall positive impact on society as advocated by an influential scholar and innovator in the field, Ray Kurzweil (Author of “The Singularity is Coming”)

Technology in itself is a double-edged sword as proclaimed countless times before. Technological advancements in itself have historically been value neutral but its our use that make them ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Atomic energy being the most pertinent example. Similarly, AI poses unprecedented threats but simultaneously promises unparalleled opportunities. Its our usage that defines its legacy therefore it is our responsibility to know, comprehend and understand the ‘ifs’ so we may drive positive innovation forward while guard against destruction. Leaders in the field have already taken steps advocating for restricting the creation of autonomous weapons in an open letter to the UN.

AI is already impacting the world in multiple ways which largely go unseen. The mass amounts of digital data has allowed machines to learn and AI to become smarter exponentially quicker than humans. This has allowed for far greater insight as machines are able to draw upon relations in data sets which are beyond human comprehension allowing for greater efficiency and optimization. Widespread usage is evident in supply chain management and product optimization within the realm of manufacturing. AI opens doors to highly personalized education allowing for customized curriculum adjusted on each individual’s learning pace. Moreover, machines are able to predict droughts and disease while aiding in the management of water and crops with greater efficiency and lower costs. AI has also expanded opportunities within the medical field as it is able to diagnose health conditions much earlier than conventional methods.

Alternatively,AI’s ability to learn through data has highlighted the underlying complications embedded in data. Two prominent issues in data are its incompleteness and biases which are the foundational building blocks of AI. Yet, it is important to consider that biases inherent in data are also a reflection of our digital society. The capacity of machines to gather, sort and analyze vast amounts of information in split seconds has allowed for a similar effect in politics as witnessed in education; customized content. This has been evident in the most recent US Presidential election as machine software was able to individually decide on content based on its understanding of the user through analysis of their online data allowing for customized ads pushing unique messages in order to sway voters. This is quite analogous to a game of chess where each tries to think a few steps ahead of the opponent when making their decision at hand (Machines have already aced that game). Thus, AI has revolutionized the means of deception and misinformation. Besides these undercurrents, the common man is largely worried about the looming threat of unemployment especially at the lower skill levels as AI and autonomous machines are stepping up to replace them or have in some cases already done so.

Courts in the United States are using AI for decision making spanning the domains of parole and risk assessment for convicts. Algorithms are informing decisions which have massive consequences for an individual and the interesting (or not so interesting) part is that these algorithms are outsourced from private companies. This means that the underlying code driving the decisions are hidden under proprietary patents effectively making the decision making process unaccountable. After privatizing prisons, we are now heading into a world where life altering decisions are also coming under the realm of private enterprise through the infiltration of software in the disposal of justice.

China, on the other hand of the political spectrum, is using a combination of AI and the digital identities of its citizens to assign them a score which has real world consequences, positive and negative. The system which was implemented in 2014 and is expected to encompass the nation by 2020 provides a glimpse into a potential Big Brother future. This virtual credit system impacts access to crucial resources such as health care while also having consequences in the realm of dating, rentals, financial services, transportation and social gatherings. China’s social credit system might be one of the more extreme use cases of AI but accounts for control over 20% of the world population. Perhaps it is a communist phenomenon but given the massive disruptions, economic, social and political being unfolded everyday, wont this serve as an effective tool for “maintaining stability”?

Russian President, Vladimir Putin has warned that whoever becomes the leader in AI will effectively become the ruler of the world. But actions speak louder than words and nothing could be louder than Russia’s decision to send humanoid robots to space as crew members which have the ability to drive cars and fire guns. AI, within the domain of space exploration, could allow for massive advancements but may also be a precursor for a deadly race to colonize space. Surprisingly (or not), plans have already been made by powerful individuals for a space colony complete with its own functioning bureaucracy headed by Russian scientist, Igor Ashurbeyli.

As I have immersed myself in the depths of this topic, I have come to realize a crucial difference between intelligence and wisdom which I feel is the paramount distinction between AI and humans. Sure, a machine can learn and execute everything within the realm of information at exponentially faster rates than humans but they do not have the capacity to experience. And it is important to remember this as time progresses because the contemporary discourse is heavily shaped by efficiency rather than empathy.
“Knowledge comes from learning. Wisdom comes from living.” — Anthony Douglas Williams

With major developments unfolding in the sphere of AI, the possibilities are endless, both in a positive and negative light. As nations and corporations race to cement their grip on power, the threats induced by competition increase which allow for a future either marred by destruction or one defined by collective prosperity. But how can we guide the future if we are not even aware of its direction or its underlying forces?

It is of utmost necessity that we equip ourselves with the knowledge that is guiding humanity so we may debate, advocate and protest where necessary and as a result shape the future collectively. Surveillance, control and war are major threats imposed by the nature of AI’s progression so is the massive divide the technology may create between the have’s and have not’s. Elon Musk is working towards creating tools which would help humanity merge with AI in order to save it from becoming obsolete while Douglas Rushkoff advocates for learning the underlying technology that is driving society today. Where do we stand?

Let’s think this through before we are caught off guard with an uneasy reality. This is our world and we have the ability to shape it, for better or worse.

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