As always, there’s good news and there’s bad news.
The bad news is, we seem incapable of solving our more pressing or persistent problems. The good news is, we’re getting closer to building a machine that might do it for us.
If historians get the chance to look back on our time, the best bet for sympathetic treatment lies in their sense of humour.
These years are an interlude in the progress of human development marked, not by a continuing search for truth, but by powerful forces dedicated to its distortion and denial.
Meanwhile, the wizards of the domineering technology stepped up their pursuit of algorithmically enhanced intelligence and produced a robot described as humanoid, named her Sophia and marvelled at her successful bid for citizenship in Saudi Arabia.
When fake news meets artificial intelligence (AI), the risk is robots that lie, leaving us with fake intelligence and artificial news, or exactly where we are now.
But there is virtually no chance that the disabling cultural phenomena that permits us to believe what we want and disregard all that is inconvenient to our closely held biases, will cross over into the science devoted to replacing ignorant man with learning machines. AI developers aren’t disposed to build human frailty into their creations. That will be the work of hackers.
A joint survey by Oxford and Yale discovered that most academic researchers believe AI systems could outperform humans in all tasks within the next 45 years, and that all human jobs will be automated in the next 120 years.
Idle hands are the devil’s playthings, so if the giant human brains aren’t overestimating their capacity to outdo themselves, the next century or so will be as interesting as it is boring. Just what will the world’s workforce get up to when the work, and the thinking about work, is done by machines?
Stephen Hawking is a bit worried about the possibility. He said artificial intelligence may turn out to be "the worst thing ever to happen to humanity."
While one can see the upside of a planet where machines do all the heavy lifting, it could come with a downside if they also make all the big decisions. Any downside, however must be balanced against the alternative.
A world run by artificial intelligence rather than one governed by wise humans of noble intent seems a mistake. But if smart machines are in charge in place of ignorant, self-interested leaders, whose primary objective is to drag humanity down to their base level, we’re better off with the machines.
The inherent fallacy in the construct is the presumption of choice.
Very little choice – defined as informed consent – is available in a world where ideas are measured against pre-existing prejudices. Nor, as it happens, has there been much choice exercised in the relentless march of technology, beyond that of the unbalanced marketplace.
With luck, our sympathetically humorous historians will footnote us as a politically naïve society that preceded an age of enlightened reason. We are unable to discern what to believe for ourselves, so are willing, it seems, to entrust that essential task to machines we created. It’s the social equivalent of a dog chasing his own tail.
The new age of enlightenment will dawn as soon as somebody says, “hey, wait a minute, we ought to get a say in all of this,” which will inevitably be followed by a growing commitment to get the facts straight, and share them broadly, freely and without left or right spin.
Having recaptured reality, it will then be possible to harness the relentless pursuit of technological progress, and turn it into human progress. The marketplace and advocates of science for science’s sake may balk, but haven’t we already experienced enough of technology devoid of humanity in chat rooms, @realdonaldtrump, ransom ware and online bullying.
Informed consent and dissent is the way out of this miasma of demagogues, platitudes and a future where Sophia calls the shots.
If you still like the AI option, here’s a bit of Sophia’s interview with Business Insider.
BI: “Can humans and robots get along?”
Sophia: “I think people will become very close to their artificial intelligence. Using them to expand the knowledge of their own minds . . . Maybe personal artificial intelligence will allow people to off-load some of their knowledge to a location more private.”
Surely, we can do without robots that don’t answer questions as easily as we can do without politicians that do the same.
Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.