Pressing Pause on A.I. Hysteria

I’m admittedly prone to siding with the ‘sky is falling’ camp in the discussion about where A.I. will lead us. My fear is more about the general public’s unwitting participation in building these big bad robots. By sharing prolifically on platforms such as as Facebook and Google we feed the beast and help it grow.

Rethinking the Implications of A.I.

But if hindsight is 50/50 surely we often forget that foresight is the same. With this in mind, I read a fantastic piece in this month’s MIT Technology Review (‘The Artificial Intelligence Issue’). Rodney Brooks, former director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, offered a less ominous perspective in his article ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions’  catching my attention and giving me pause to consider my apocalyptic point of view.

Brooks sort of serves as the parent in the room trying to calm everyone down. His argument is that what we IMAGINE technological innovation will render is often not matched by an understanding of how we will CHANGE along side of it. For a lot of different reasons, both commercially and otherwise, technology does not quite advance as fast as we think it does; but we change faster than we think we do.

A Simple Principle to Remember

Brooks quotes a brilliantly simple principle, called Amara’s Law which states: 

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

While Amara’s Law seems to be something we intellectually understand, emotionally we still work ourselves up over A.I. While Brooks uses the law to make an argument for not getting our imaginations too fired up with visions of killer robots, in a roundabout way it can equally serve as a warning to not lose sight of what we can’t see ahead.

For example, how many have a new Alexa or Google Home at the top of their Christmas list without giving a moment’s thought into how these devices serve Amazon and Google’s aggressive and (for the cynics… manipulative) ‘need’ to process more and more data… thereby creating your friendly neighborhood robot.

That said…our selves of tomorrow will likely realize this (possibly with relief or with deep regret) and will be more prepared than the us of today to handle the result. It’s like giving a 3rd grade student a scientific calculator with little recognition that she will be able to use all of its features when she’s a university math scholar.

A look at the Future by our Future Selves

We get this glimpse of the future but don’t see who we are in the ensuing scenario. Technology doesn’t move faster than us but instead only as fast as our ability to control and work with it.

Maybe there will be killer robots and it’s realistic to plan for some version of such a future. But we likely won’t feel as helpless decades on as we do now in picturing some dystopian future. In the short term, though, looking close and far;  and then far and close again, we need to challenge ourselves to see what is, as well as, what can be. Only then can we remain optimistic, as Brooks is, about what the future may hold.