Sunday, November 16, 2014

don't fear artificial intelligence?


slate |  But the biggest negative impact of AI fear mongering may not lie in the regulatory realm. Instead, it could very well reinforce and worsen the state of learned helplessness that characterizes the average Joe or Jane’s relationship to and dependence on complex technology. At best, computing is a necessary chore for many users. At worst, computing is bewildering and alienating, sometimes requiring intervention of technical specialists with arcane knowledge bases. Experts often lament that the mass public and the people who represent them are ignorant of technological details and thus make poor choices concerning technology in both day-to-day life and regulatory policy.

Technopanics didn’t create the divide between the Linuxless masses and the Geek Squad—but they arguably worsen it. When public figures like Musk characterize emerging technologies in mystical, alarmist, and metaphorical terms, they abandon the very science and technology that forged innovations like Tesla cars for the superstition and ignorance of what Carl Sagan famously dubbed the “demon-haunted world.” Instead of helping users understand, adapt to, and even empathize with the white-collar robot that may be joining their workplace, Musk’s remarks encourage them to fear and despise what they don’t understand. It is fitting that Musk’s remarks come so close to Halloween, as his rhetoric resembles that of the village elder in an old horror movie who whips up the villagers to bear pitchforks and torches to kill the monster in the decrepit old castle up the hill.
The greatest tragedy of the emergent AI technopanic that Musk fuels is that it may reduce human autonomy in a world that may one day be driven by increasingly autonomous machine intelligence. Experts tell us that emerging AI technologies will fundamentally reshape everything from romantic relationships to national security. They could be wrong, as AI has an unfortunate history of failing to live up to expectations. Let’s assume, however, that they are right. Why would it be in the public interest to—through visions of demons, wizards, and warlocks—contribute to an already growing divide between the technologists who make the self-driving cars and the rest of us who will ride in them?
Debates in AI and public policy often hinge on trying to parse precisely what machine autonomy represents, but you don’t need a Ph.D. in computer science or even a Github account to know what it means to be an autonomous human interacting with technology. It’s understanding (at least on some level) and being able to make confident decisions about the ways we use everyday technology. (Perhaps if users were encouraged to take charge of technology instead of fearing it, they wouldn’t need to take so many trips to the Genius Bar.) Yes, Musk is right that AI can’t be left purely to the programmers. But worrying about science fiction like Skynet could just reinforce the “digital divide” between the tech’s haves and have-nots.