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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bots

Humans have long craved cautionary tales, but the reality of artificial intelligence isn’t one of them

Lauren Ellis
Oct 24, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo: Alex Knight/Unsplash

Every era needs a bogeyman. ​A villain waiting in the shadows to snatch away our children and defile our way of life. Throughout human history, we’ve fought demons, dragons, monsters, and each other. We have been telling stories about these struggles for over 70,000 years.

Today, instead of witches and magic, our ancient fears are focused on artificial intelligence and its supposedly inevitable march toward world domination.

Storytelling Shapes Experience

The stories we tell, and even the language we use, are important. They capture the way we see ourselves, each other, and the wider world. With them as lenses, we interpret our experiences. We create our realities and our culture. They are part of an eternal dialogue threading through the past and present. In this way, storytelling simultaneously explains the world and imposes our ideals of morality; our tales serve as warnings, messages, and explorations of what is acceptable and what is abhorrent.

That, and they provide excellent entertainment.

Since the dawn of time, humans have been compelled by universal questions like “Why are we here?” and “What happens after death?” Our stories echo these themes, and through the osmosis of a shared storytelling history, we can see similar archetypes play out. We’ve always needed a monster under our bed as a means of tethering our primeval anxiety to something concrete and external; A.I. is just the latest guise.

‘The Robots Are Coming!’

If the traditional function of storytelling is an exploration of society’s borders, then folklore, in particular, serves as a warning about transgressing them. The form a monster or punishment takes — be it ego, grotesque, or robotic — exists as “the symbol story of the human soul,” as John Steinbeck put it. Arguably, the motif of an A.I. apocalypse has existed in a literary sense for centuries. From Icarus and Prometheus to Frankenstein’s monster, the concept of humans being destroyed by their creations is familiar.

Like the myths that have shaped our civilization, technology and its implications are reflections and extensions of us. Like a god creating a world, we pour ourselves into our designs and marvel at their ugliness. We stand quaking with fear, like Basil in The Picture of Dorian Gray, fretting that we’ve put too much of ourselves into the paint. And maybe we have.

Humans have always chosen to fear and hate before they understand. But on a cultural level, we really should pause before getting too carried away. We need to dismiss the sci-fi horrors we’ve long associated with A.I. — sorry, Ray Bradbury, though I still love you — and regard them with a logical, steady eye.

Freeing A.I. from Bias

When I attended Interact London last week, this dystopian nightmare was something the speakers there wanted us to wake from. Rather than worry whether A.I. bots will shatter our societies, we should remember — as Mischa Weiss-Lijn rightly prompted — that humans have always augmented themselves, be it by riding on the back of horses or crafting early tools and technologies.

Moreover, it’s less the existence and use of A.I. than the ethics of it. That was another theme that thread through the lectures at Interact London and with good reason. Consider the perspective of John Giannandrea, leader of A.I. at Google, who recently said, “The real safety question, if you want to call it that, is that if we give these systems biased data, they will be biased.” We have seen countless examples of biased designs and algorithms being used to make financial, legal, and, increasingly, medical decisions. Particularly in the legal realm, from identifying criminals and informing judicial rulings, prejudiced algorithms are targeting some of society’s most vulnerable people.

Designing for Good

But as for A.I. robots assuming our place in our homes and stealing our jobs, this image just isn’t accurate. Call me a romantic, but what makes humans so “human” is something transcendent and metaphysical; something within us is intangible and unknowable. We cannot be replaced or replicated — digitally or otherwise.

After all, as Pete Trainor noted in his Interact London talk, each of us is a miracle who won the galactic lottery of being born. But more than that, and on a practical level, the technology simply isn’t there. People who fall victim to the robots-will-takeover narrative forget that we are the creators, we write the script.

In reality, A.I. is a tool. It exists to enhance and optimize our current processes. It’s no more deserving of fear than a tractor or your laptop. It’s the humans who wield the technology we should worry about because every one of us is flawed and faulty and a victim of our own myopia. We need to examine our digital creations (and ourselves) closely; we don’t get to look away. We have a responsibility — a duty — to design for good.

The world we’re living in is changing, and the jobs of today may not exist in the future, but would that be such a terrible thing? In the words of Heraclitus: “Nothing endures but change.” All is transient, all is flux. And like our A.I. inventions, we too are constantly learning and changing. No matter how smart our robots become, intelligence in an information-hoarding sense does not constitute an authentic being (although Jean-Paul Sartre would have an absolute blast debating it).

If in doubt, take a lesson from quantum physics. It tells us that reality is what we seek, record, and see. The very fabric of the universe’s behavior changes depending on the intentions of the viewer. We never really see the world, only signs that our brains have learned to identify.

On the surface, this view may seem wildly chaotic — as if we were anchor-less beings flying through space with little reason or logic to cling to — but it actually gives us ultimate control. Maybe it’s the existentialist in me speaking, but like the stories we tell about the world and our place in it, each of us has agency and the ability to change, which are perhaps the two most powerful qualities in the cosmos.

This article is the second in two-part series on artificial intelligence, inspired by the recent Interact London conference. Find Part 1, “Digital Memento Mori,” here.

Written by

Writer, artist and occasional poet. Lover of philosophy, folklore, history + curiosities. UX writer by day. Writing a book about death by night.

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