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Fear of AI is misplaced. Instead, fear the people who crave power

Fear of technology is not new. But we misunderstand its origin. In reality, we don’t fear technology but each other.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think; Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • When we fear technology, we are actually fearing each other — what we are capable of doing to one another. This fear is very old.
  • The fear of technology hides our own moral failing, our inability to grow beyond the need for power.
  • Ensuring we are safe from AI is really about ensuring that we are safe from ourselves. Maybe AI will help us find a better way to move forward.

We live in strange times, when the technology we depend on the most is also that which we fear the most. We celebrate cutting-edge achievements even as we recoil in fear at how they could be used to hurt us. From genetic engineering and AI to nuclear technology and nanobots, the list of awe-inspiring, fast-developing technologies is long. 

However, this fear of the machine is not as new as it may seem. Technology has a longstanding alliance with power and the state. The dark side of human history can be told as a series of wars whose victors are often those with the most advanced technology. (There are exceptions, of course.) Science, and its technological offspring, follows the money.

This fear of the machine seems to be misplaced. The machine has no intent: only its maker does. The fear of the machine is, in essence, the fear we have of each other — of what we are capable of doing to one another.

How AI changes things

Sure, you would reply, but AI changes everything. With artificial intelligence, the machine itself will develop some sort of autonomy, however ill-defined. It will have a will of its own. And this will, if it reflects anything that seems human, will not be benevolent. With AI, the claim goes, the machine will somehow know what it must do to get rid of us. It will threaten us as a species. 

Well, this fear is also not new. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818 to warn us of what science could do if it served the wrong calling. In the case of her novel, Dr. Frankenstein’s call was to win the battle against death — to reverse the course of nature. Granted, any cure of an illness interferes with the normal workings of nature, yet we are justly proud of having developed cures for our ailments, prolonging life and increasing its quality. Science can achieve nothing more noble. What messes things up is when the pursuit of good is confused with that of power. In this distorted scale, the more powerful the better. The ultimate goal is to be as powerful as gods — masters of time, of life and death.

Back to AI, there is no doubt the technology will help us tremendously. We will have better medical diagnostics, better traffic control, better bridge designs, and better pedagogical animations to teach in the classroom and virtually. But we will also have better winnings in the stock market, better war strategies, and better soldiers and remote ways of killing. This grants real power to those who control the best technologies. It increases the take of the winners of wars — those fought with weapons, and those fought with money.

A story as old as civilization

The question is how to move forward. This is where things get interesting and complicated. We hear over and over again that there is an urgent need for safeguards, for controls and legislation to deal with the AI revolution. Great. But if these machines are essentially functioning in a semi-black box of self-teaching neural nets, how exactly are we going to make safeguards that are sure to remain effective? How are we to ensure that the AI, with its unlimited ability to gather data, will not come up with new ways to bypass our safeguards, the same way that people break into safes? 

The second question is that of global control. As I wrote before, overseeing new technology is complex. Should countries create a World Mind Organization that controls the technologies that develop AI? If so, how do we organize this planet-wide governing board? Who should be a part of its governing structure? What mechanisms will ensure that governments and private companies do not secretly break the rules, especially when to do so would put the most advanced weapons in the hands of the rule breakers? They will need those, after all, if other actors break the rules as well. 

As before, the countries with the best scientists and engineers will have a great advantage. A new international détente will emerge in the molds of the nuclear détente of the Cold War. Again, we will fear destructive technology falling into the wrong hands. This can happen easily. AI machines will not need to be built at an industrial scale, as nuclear capabilities were, and AI-based terrorism will be a force to reckon with. 

So here we are, afraid of our own technology all over again.

What is missing from this picture? It continues to illustrate the same destructive pattern of greed and power that has defined so much of our civilization. The failure it shows is moral, and only we can change it. We define civilization by the accumulation of wealth, and this worldview is killing us. The project of civilization we invented has become self-cannibalizing. As long as we do not see this, and we keep on following the same route we have trodden for the past 10,000 years, it will be very hard to legislate the technology to come and to ensure such legislation is followed. Unless, of course, AI helps us become better humans, perhaps by teaching us how stupid we have been for so long. This sounds far-fetched, given who this AI will be serving. But one can always hope.

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