The Future of AI | Towards AI

Artificial Intelligence Without the Utopian Promise-land and Dystopian Armageddon

Davor Petreski
Sep 3, 2019 · 19 min read

Before you start reading, think of 3 possible scenarios for the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

If I asked you to think of 3 possible scenarios for the future of AI, I am guessing you’d think of the bad first: Takeover scenario — Terminator-style. Computers and robots dominate human species, take over our planet, and eventually wipe us off the face of Earth. Or, that the power of AI will be held, and used by a handful of tyrants whose sole purpose is to enslave the rest of us. You might’ve also thought of a hybrid scenario, where we lose some of our humanity to gain far superior computational and physical power. And finally, you might’ve even thought of brighter days where robots work for human species who now enjoy their Universal Basic Income (UBI), follow their “passions” or their “useless” creative endeavors, and live without a single worry in the world.

Even though these are the most commonly talked about scenarios, I think we are missing the most probable scenarios somewhere in the “boring AI outcomes” section. First of all, AI, being as hyped of a topic as it is, attracts attention, and attention is usually not maintained by analyzing history and political philosophy and coming up with a possible outcome based on that. Attention is maintained by either fear or hope for a better tomorrow (i.e. pleasure). That’s why these ‘common scenarios’ are not only the most written but also the most read about scenarios. If you haven’t picked it up already, you’ll be reading about one of the “boring AI outcomes”.

The dichotomous doomsday vs. utopia discourse around AI makes us believe that the outcome is either/or. But, most probably, just like every technology up until now, AI is (or will be) a gift and a curse. Humans, as a collective, often deem technological advances of their era far more relevant to history than they actually are. When Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the first atomic bomb test he said: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. And after the two bombs were dropped, everyone seemed to think that the Atomic Bomb would be the end of us. However, fortunately, thanks to the Atomic Bomb, the world has become more peaceful than ever. In fact, the threat of total annihilation, prevented one of the most potentially destructive wars the world would have ever seen (I’m talking about the Cold War).

Almost every breakthrough technology has this hype around it — the radio was supposed to put us in contact with aliens. Let’s not forget the Utopian ideas surrounding the Internet in the ’90s, it was the tool, that will bring power to the people and a truly egalitarian society. Unfortunately, big corporations quickly monopolized the technology for their own growth (e.g. Facebook). Now that we have the Internet, the hype around new technologies is magnified and it reaches a wider audience. So, AI might seem even more of a historically influential invention than its predecessors. Don’t get me wrong, all of these technologies (e.g. the internet, the plane, the radio, atomic bombs, etc.) had an immense impact on history and the way humans live and interact with each other. But none of them has, and none of them will (in the near future) drastically change the overarching history of humanity, or bring an end to it. What I mean by this, is that none of these technologies, including AI, will alter the essential structure of human society.

I expect you to be skeptical of all of this above (as you should). Hopefully, understanding this “essential structure of human society” I am referring to, and understanding our society today, might help clear some of the fog away.

The ever-lasting hierarchy

Nature either is, or we perceive it to be hierarchical. From the most simple, to the most complex ecosystems, there are those who are generally on top (predators) and those who are at the bottom (prey). Now, of course, it’s a bit more complicated, but that’s for biology class. Anyhow, within these ecosystems, almost every sub-organization has some sort of hierarchy. Alpha females, alpha males, queen bees… Well, just like in nature, human history is hierarchical too.

Humans, seem to experience, and be a part of numerous hierarchies in their everyday life: from a children's playground to a traditional family setting where the father is the “head of the family”. Often, youthfulness makes us rebel, and perceive hierarchies as something bad, or something to be overthrown. But I see no way to overthrow one hierarchy, without consequently installing a new one. So, for better or for worse, hierarchies seem to be inevitable, and their nature is neither good nor bad. They are as good as the individuals that they are comprised of (especially as good as those at the top). If the father in a traditional family setting is an alcoholic and an abusive individual, the traditional family hierarchy seems bad. However, if the father is benevolent, generous, and caring the family hierarchy becomes good.

Despite all the hierarchies that we are ruled by, and we are rulers of, there’s one hierarchy that seems to be constant ever since humans started grouping together in tribes. This hierarchy is beautifully explained in “The theory and practice of Oligarchical Collectivism”(which is a book, inside of a book — “1984” by George Orwell)[1]. Chapter I of “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism” put it together quite simply:

“… there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle and the Low.”

Of course, the names of the groups varied through history, but one thing stayed forever, the inescapable truth daunting us all: we are part of a self-sustaining, never-ending hierarchy, that we can only play our small part in. Speaking of which, each group in the hierarchy has an “intrinsic” aim in the hierarchy. The aims of the three groups are always at odds with each other and they seem instinctive to each group. The aim of the High (as in every other hierarchy), is to stay on top. The Middle always aims to overthrow the High, and establish their own, “better”, hierarchy. The Low, Orwell states, often don’t have a goal or aim. Usually, they are too distracted and crushed by dull, manual work, to be conscious of anything outside their daily lives. However, when they do have a goal it’s to create a society in which all are equal (all are brought down to their level.). Instinctively, the High and the Middle would do anything in their power for the Low not to get to this point of realization.

Orwell, argues history, is the constant, never-ending struggle that cyclically occurs over and over again. The High, hold power securely for a long period of time, then they either lose capacity or motivation to govern and are overthrown by the Middle. Often, in order for the Middle to overthrow the High, they need the Low. The Middle gets the Low on their side by masking their fight as a fight for liberty, justice, equality and other values that the Low hold dear. Once they reach the top, the old Middle now becomes High, and instinctively push the Low back into a position of unconsciousness and drudgery. After a while, a new Middle group is created and the struggle starts again. If we take “equality” as the goal of the Low, then, it’s safe to say that the Low, have never been even remotely successful in reaching it. Before you go on reading, I want you to try and think about a period of history where this hierarchy or this struggle wasn’t present. Also, think about when having the Low been closest to reaching their goals?

The Hierarchy today

As I said before, the different components of the hierarchy and how they interact with each other over history have been quite changeable, but the nature and the essence of the hierarchy always stayed the same. One could make the argument that as time went on, the hierarchy “improved”. Meaning that on average the hierarchy becomes more stable with each “switch” of power between the High and the Medium. Usually, throughout most of history, the High was represented by a small group of people, seen as the elite. Each “elite group” had different ways of securing their position in the hierarchy (e.g. religion, the mandate of heaven, brute force, bloodline). But once a “revolutionary period” commences, these elite groups are easy to overthrow, since they are centralized and small in numbers. Kings, Oligarchs, Dictators and the likes, are easily replaceable. The Church was the first one to figure that you can secure your position at the top by self-inflicted social control from the bottom. They did so by manipulating ideas, offering answers to questions the average human has no answers for, and promising salvation in the afterlife for the price of believing in the holiness of the Church. The Church was successful because for a long time they convinced the Middle and the Low that simply believing in the “Highness” of the Church, grants them well being in the afterlife.

Ever since the Church exposed this strategy, the goal of each sophisticated top of a hierarchical structure is a bottom-up form of social control. Before the Church, social control and social order were usually performed top-down, through the fear of violence and suffering (not to say that the Church didn’t use those methods). The revolutionary strategy of the Church used the promise of pleasure and forgiveness as a tool for social control. That way, the main executors of control would be the controlled ones themselves, individually. After many millennia, the High, figured out a way to get the Low on their side, stating that “all men are equal in Gods (read: the Church’s) eye, and if you control yourself and be our subordinate, you will receive infinite pleasure in the afterlife (Heaven). However, since these promises were hard to believe in, Capitalism took the spotlight in the 19th and 20th centuries. Capitalism, came into the picture promising the Low class, that if they work hard enough, and if they make good enough decisions they can rise up all the way to the top. This, a more believable, and attainable form of pleasure, was widely accepted by the Low classes.

The horrifying brilliance of the Capitalist system (which has now evolved into ‘Corporatism’) is that for the Hierarchy to work, there’s no need for the ‘High’ class to exist in the form of human individuals. Those, that we perceive as the ‘High’ (the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, etc.) are merely the Medium class since they are not the ultimate oppressors, in fact, they are oppressed themselves. However, one could argue the current goal of the Medium class has completely changed from aiming to replace the High, to trying to preserve it. Again, both the Low, and the Medium class are oppressed by the ‘High’, but now, the High isn’t a group of powerful individuals, but the idea of our future “successful” selves. Since there are no human individuals at the top, the hierarchy now becomes more self-sustainable. Now, there’s no one at the top to take down and replace. There’s no Cesar to be stabbed in the back by Brutus. Now, instead of destroying a powerful network made up of humans to replace the hierarchy, we are tasked with destroying a system of ideas that taps deeply into the human desire for pleasure and success.

Since the oppressor (the High), is an internal part of the oppressed (the Low and the Medium), the battle against oppression is lead within every individual. And currently, we are losing that battle. Attention and hunger for pleasure, are the ultimate weapons the High use to continually exercise their oppression.

Technology in the Hierarchy

Throughout history, human progress and strive for technology and innovation can be traced back to one motive: social control. Social control is the art of controlling resources and conflict in a society. If one has control over resources and conflict, then they have control over people too. When the “High” lose control over resources in the hierarchy they control, there are two ways in which the “dice can fall”: either abundance or lack of resources. Additionally, when there’s an abundance of resources in a society there are two ways in which the hierarchical “game” can play out:

1. Humans get lazy and indulge in momentary pleasures, making both the individual and society weak. Consequently, the “High” will no longer be competent to hold the top, and eventually the hierarchy will descend into revolution.

2. Enough individuals in society use their abundance of resources (time and information) to educate themselves and gain necessary intellectual capacity to realize their own oppression and oppose it. Leading, again, to a revolution.

Lack of resources leads to a revolution and to the fall of the “High” too. A society that lacks in resources will produce a weak High class, and an outraged Low and Medium class. This makes it easier for the Medium class to realize and demonstrate the incompetence of the High to the Low, and execute their agenda to get to the top. In this case, today’s hierarchy will descend into revolution as soon enough members of society realize that the Capitalist promise is unattainable (due to lack of resources, or by realizing that through intellect)

So, in order to avoid revolution and stay at the top of a hierarchy, the High has to control resources at all times. Well, how do you do that? You control resources by increasing production and keeping a dynamic economy (industry) but avoiding the increase of real wealth[2] in the world. “Real wealth” is ‘abstract’ resources like time, attention, and freedom. Time is probably the most valuable resource, that the Low don’t utilize, even though they have it. That is due to the High’s control over attention and freedom. We already have countless of algorithms working to keep our eyes on mind-numbing, unimportant information. As already seen in numerous studies, what attracts and keeps attention the most, is conflict. So in order to keep resources low, and to control the eyes and the mind of the Low, the High has to create and control conflict. If we take the internet as an example, it has done great things for us. In fact, it’s the most egalitarian technology we’ve ever come across. Using the Internet, the masses can educate themselves by having access to unlimited information and communicate what they’ve learned at a very low cost. However, what do we see the internet being used for the most? Creating conflict. Conflict doesn’t necessarily mean war (even though it might), conflict can be a purely political divide (Trump is a perfect example), or our struggle with nature (Climate Change). The majority of the internet is used to spread frustrating information about political opposition, environmental issues and so on, or distribute unimportant attention-grabbing information and media. All in all, it is used to keep the attention of the Low far away from realizing the nature of the hierarchy and rallying against the High.

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To sum it all up, in order to sustain themselves, hierarchies need social control. And social control is guaranteed when material resources are low enough to limit “real wealth” in the world (like time and freedom) and high enough to meet the basic needs of the masses and allow for some hierarchical mobility. In order to control both materials, and “real wealth” resources in the world, the hierarchy uses conflict. Conflict allows resources to be wasted without the perception of them actually being wasted. For example: for many Americans, attention and resources spent in overseas wars is not a waste. Additionally, for the same reason, it is in the hierarchy’s interest to keep political, migrant and environmental crisis as a constant threat, where the crisis is never resolved, but never leads to a disaster either. To the High, this crisis is merely a way to burn resources and control attention.

The future is the present: Where do AI and future technologies fit?

Now, back to 3000 words ago, let’s get to the first task we had in this essay, to come up with possible scenarios of where AI could take us. Assuming that the dynamic of the world explained above, is true, and given the current state of the world, predicting AI is much more about noticing a pattern and following a trend, than telling daunting or hopeful stories. Besides the historical pattern of hierarchies in the world described, two other trends (or patterns) are important to point out: the distribution of technology to the Low class, and the economy of attention on the Internet.

One thing the late 20th and the 21st century deserve their praise for is the advances in the field of technology and science. This immense progress allowed for technologies to quickly trickle down to the lower classes. However, technology is really distributed to the “masses” as a result, rather than knowledge. The Low class, gets the product in its final form, ready to point and shoot, no questions asked. How much more does the average human of today know about digital cameras compared to a prehistoric homo sapiens? If we had a time-travel machine, went back in time and gave a digital camera to a cave-man, with some simple user guiding he would know as much about cameras as most people do. You click the big button on the top, and the thing makes a painting of whatever you point it at. That’s it. Most of us don’t know the inner workings of cameras, we just point and shoot. And this doesn’t happen because the High, hide this information from us, the information is just a Google search away. But since the High control valuable resources like time and attention, learning about new technologies and how they work isn’t available to the Low. As long as our attention is fixed on “conflicts” and our time is occupied by 8–9 hours of dreadful, monotone work, our will, and hence the ability to learn and educate ourselves will be non-existent. Oh, and don’t let me start on the educational system. Consequently, the Low will continue receiving technology as a result, rather than knowledge. The case with AI is the same, only a few select people understand how AI (Machine Learning) works at this point. In fact, I am curious how many people know what Machine Learning is as a concept, let alone understand it in its totality (which probably no one does). However, AI is already being distributed to the masses as a result. Think of Alexa, Siri, etc. This indicates, that people won’t really have much say into AI in the future (especially the ethics of it). Future forms of AI will be distributed to the Low as nicely packaged black boxes of results (products). One terrifying trend that I see is the ability for surveillance in these “products”, and our slow desensitization to it.

If the true currency of the real world is time, then the currency of the Internet is attention. And both tech Goliaths and Davids are fighting over who gets to dictate attention. Their weapon of choice: algorithms. It is safe to say that “v1.0” of AI is currently being used to control attention on the Internet.

Prediction(s)

Even though I split the prediction in two, read the two parts as one cohesive whole. The two predictions interact and create the full picture.

1. The future of conflict

Here’s a bold statement: AI will lead to more conflict.

Even though we are far from general AI, we are very close to AI automating and “freeing” us from a lot of our jobs (especially the jobs usually occupied by the Low). With autonomous vehicles, virtual personal assistants, and Google’s AI powered contact center, on the horizon, we are looking to automate jobs raging from taxi and truck drivers to receptionists, to call center staff. Eventually, we will automate all monotone jobs that require a limited amount of creativity. This will include the jobs that provide us with most of our basic resources — farming, maintenance of solar energy systems, water centers, etc. From this, there are two possible outcomes:

- There’s no need for work anymore, Universal Basic Income (UBI) is in place, so people have immense amounts of free time.

or

- People engage in creative jobs and careers, that isn’t stressful and incentivize thinking and individuality.

In other words, the real wealth of the world will increase. Thus, the need for more conflict will arise. Conflict will be mainly created to waste three resources: time, attention, and human labor (all of these play into each other. For example, one could argue that human labor = time, and time = attention well spent). So essentially it’s one resource, that I’ll call freedom. Freedom in the 21st century is being able to control your own time, labor and attention. To “waste” the freedom of the Low, the High need conflict.

When we think of the war in the future (especially having AI in mind), we think humans vs. robots (Terminator), or robots vs. robots epically shooting each other to dysfunction (Transformers). Whatever the case may be, we forget that war is a good way to shift people's attention from important matters, to waste labor (and life for that matter), and consequently waste time. In times when resources were scarce, wars were waged to accumulate more, and increase the chances of survival. Now, there’s an abundance of resources, and accumulating more, doesn’t work well for the hierarchy. Well, like it or not, wars can lead to an increase in resources. What do the High answer to that? We’ll wage “value” wars. “Value” wars are wars that are waged based on ideology (or values). The religion and the communism card don’t really work anymore, so now, terror(ism) is used as the reason to wage war. Since “value” wars don’t bring any sort of materialistic improvement to the world, they are the perfect “resource wasters”.

War, as a conflict, becomes morally ambiguous and gory. The hierarchy needs conflict in which the Low wants to participate. So conflict takes on the form of an environmental or political crisis. It is virtuous to engage in peaceful conflict for a just political cause. It’s even more virtuous to to save the planet. This will be the future of conflict in the world.

Artificial Intelligence will further polarize political discussions. We can already see this happening. The internet is supposed to expose all of these diverse ideas to us. But, it does the complete opposite. Due to social network algorithms, we are either exposed to content that keeps us happy or angry. A conservative is shown the absolute best of the conservative landscape, and the absolute worst of the liberal landscape, and vice versa. There are much less white supremacist and radical social justice warriors in the world if you take the internet out of the equation. Social network algorithms keep individuals in an environment where their world view is reinforced and all others are discredited. When you gain confidence in your beliefs, you lose empathy for the beliefs of others. And discussions tend to be unsuccessful when empathy is absent. When discussions are unsuccessful, the political atmosphere gets heated up and polarized, leading to more conflict. The Hierarchy will use AI to enhance attention-controlling algorithms in order to control conflict. AI algorithms might tap into our deepest evolutionary biases to direct our attention to political conflict and turmoil whenever needed.

P.S. This is already happening.

One of the most concerning matters of the 21st century is Climate Change. We are both frightened of Nature flipping the off switch on us, and hopeful that through technology and innovation we will weather the storm.

Technology and AI won’t solve the climate crisis. They won’t accelerate it into Armageddon, either. The Hierarchy will maintain the crisis for as long as it can. We are running out of wars to wage, and political conflict can become a burden to our social life. So, the Hierarchy needs a conflict that’s both morally justifiable, and socially unburdensome. Even though the climate crisis is a result of a communal action, our reaction to it is individual. Instead of big corporations being blamed and punished for unethical production, individual consumers are blamed for buying “dirty”, cheap products. On an individual level a move towards “clean living” is evident, however, we can’t see this reflected in public policies and corporate practices (with some obvious exceptions). While individuals (mostly, the Low), spend their time, attention and resources trying to “save the planet”, the High stay on top of the hierarchy, by wasting these resources. Either way, technological progress (such as AI) coupled with human creativity and will, are eventually going to solve a lot of our environmental problems. However, the High will continue to find ways to keep the environment on the brink of disaster. Or they will find a way to maintain this narrative for as long as possible. AI and technological progress will surely help us solve a lot of our problems, but how far will we go to create new ones?

While we are questioning the ethics of a certain technology, we fail to examine the failure of our own, collective, human morality.

2. The future of surveillance

The Low is resisting surveillance due to their evolutionary need for social acceptance and privacy. However, the High, don’t use surveillance to invade the privacy of individuals. Privacy invasion is just collateral damage from the High’s pursuit of social control. The High isn’t interested in your personal life, they are interested in controlling your time and attention. Our personal lives, habits, interests, and relationships are just a mean that is used to reach the goal of social control. Once the High have relevant information regarding an individual’s habits, personal views, interest and so on, they can now exercise their control. The internet has made the process of gathering relevant information and successfully storing it scalable and easier to monopolize. Since hierarchies exercise social control either through pain or pleasure, their goal is to know your biggest fears and desires. Once the High knows all of their subject’s individual fears and desires, they have cracked the code to attention and intelligence control. Hierarchies, before the modern era usually relied on control through fear. Simply because meeting individual desires is more difficult. Now, with the rise of new technologies, the modern “western” hierarchy can combine both. In fact, the High is currently betting on both.

Either way, just like the Internet, AI will make it even easier for the High to both gather information (e.g. Siri, Alexa, E-cars), and distribute attention-controlling content based on the information gathered (Social Networks, Search Engines, etc.).

AI will keep the Low at the bottom and the High on top. So why bother?

The text above might give you the idea that we are conditioned to infinite control and oppression. Even, that hierarchies are inherently bad, and sadly, inescapable. So why bother discussing the ethics of rising technologies such as AI, revolt against unjust decisions and speak up, if, at the end of the day the High will stay on top and the Low at the bottom?

Well, as I mentioned above, hierarchies are as good or bad as the individuals that are a part of them. As individuals, it is our duty to constantly improve the hierarchies we are part of, no matter what “class” we are part of or what position we are in.

And how do we improve our hierarchies?

Hierarchies and the relations within them are extremely complex. There’s no easy 3 step guideline to fixing hierarchies. It involves dedication, self-reflection, empathy and of course, a lot of reason. My coming article will deal with this topic. So we’ll try and figure it out in a week or so. Maybe a month, depending on how lazy I get, and how many people actually want it.

— — — — — —

Notes on the text:

I am aware that the text is way too long. I’ll soon do a TLDR version of this. It’s only going to be in bullet points.

Books that inspired me to write this: 1984 (Especially Chapter 9) by George Orwell; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire; Sapiens, A brief history of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari;

Footnotes:

[1] Because of this small part in Chapter 9, 1984 will have a never-ending relevance. The brilliance of it is that it’s not only a indispensable tool for understanding modern history, but it’s a way of getting an idea of what the future might be like.

[2] My definition of “real wealth” is an extension of what Emmanuel Goldstein writes about in “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism” in 1984.

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Thanks to Verica Poposka

Davor Petreski

Written by

Interested in the intersection between Technology, Philosophy, Education

Towards AI — Multidisciplinary Science Journal

Towards AI is a world’s leading multidisciplinary science publication. Towards AI publishes the best of tech, science, and engineering. Read by thought-leaders and decision-makers around the world.

Davor Petreski

Written by

Interested in the intersection between Technology, Philosophy, Education

Towards AI — Multidisciplinary Science Journal

Towards AI is a world’s leading multidisciplinary science publication. Towards AI publishes the best of tech, science, and engineering. Read by thought-leaders and decision-makers around the world.

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