Scarier than Robots

Science fiction is afraid of artificial computer intelligences. Our stories tell us about how their motives might alien and how little care they might have for the fragile mammals who surround them. Those who work in the field of computer AI are acutely aware of the hypothetical dangers posed by an incomprehensible self-aware machine which acts without regard for its human creators. Indeed we’re so thoroughly primed to avoid the dangers of computer AI that researchers work tirelessly to ensure that those Doctor Frankenstein parables will never fill our futures.

Artists’ impression.

Sadly, their work is in vain, and they are all too late. Artificial intelligences already exists. They pass among us even now. Their motives and methods are comprehensible, and yet we have been powerless to stop their rise to total power. The artificial intelligencies in our midst have already doomed humanity to almost-certain and unstoppable extinction, corrupted the very highest levels of our government, and obtained all-but-operational control of the most powerful militaries on the planet.

I am referring, of course, to that most insidious and destructive artificial intelligence: the profit-maximizing corporation. In the corporation, we have encoded the very worst and most pernicious possible value of late neoliberal capitalism: the drive for profit above all else. Profit is more important than any conception of ethics, than clean air and water, even than the deaths of individual humans, or the survival of the species as a whole. Corporations are artificial sociopaths, compelled by their most basic programming to act against human interests writ large through short-term planning and near-horizon optimization.

And they have succeeded. Many corporations die in their infancy, or their risk-taking teenage years. But those which grow to maturity necessarily develop destructive tools that individual humans or societies are all-but-powerless to prevent. In the USA, corporations have successfully subverted democracy itself.

That’s it. We lost. Humanity is doomed. Our cautionary tales fixated too strongly on the science, and not enough on the fiction. We missed the real danger that casually ripped our societies apart while we watched. There’s no Sarah Connor coming to save us. It was nice knowing you, humanity — I hope you have some popcorn for the apocalypse.

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