Opinion: Should we fear the rise of AI?

After speaking with a member of the Digital Humanities Lab, I found myself interested in the connection between their work and AI. Having to try and piece together intricate, fragmented manuscripts without the assistance of this technology could take years, decades even, of dedicated research and painstaking trial and error. Even though the ability to translate ancient texts takes a large amount of creativity, trying to align your sense of self with a civilisation of the past; AI can cut corners and can process patterns and data faster than any human. On such a small scale, it is easy to underestimate its social, political and even moral implications. Zoom out, we see that AI is now able to mimic and analyse human imagination and emotion, and can screen candidates for jobs or produce paintings. Even recently, there was public outrage as an AI produced painting entered the digital art category of the Colorado State Fair and won first prize. Suddenly, as you begin to see it from a bird’s eye view, you can see that AI can be used to influence public opinion for political gain or outperform humans in multiple sectors. With so much potential power, it brings into question: how does AI fit into our social and political systems, and is it regulated as much as it should be?

Google quickly had to muster up an answer to this question themselves after they were found to be subcontracting for Project Maven – Pentagon’s endeavour to amalgamate AI and warfare. Knowing they could have a PR crisis on their hands, Google curated their AI manifesto, explaining, in a concise four-minute read, how they will not slip up again. Considering the reason for its creation, it is rather convincing. A particular highlight of the read is how they will make sure ‘to be held accountable to people’ and by ‘people’ they mean the 3,000 or so employees who vehemently protested their background deals. Whether this would have or wouldn’t have been the case if the media hadn’t been involved is a very different, more sinister question. 

Four years later, this relationship between democracy and AI continues to be a relevant cause for discussion. At the Council of Europe conference, the Commissioner for Human Rights raised his concerns of AI’s contribution to the erosion of democratic principles. Due to the rise of bots, fake accounts and manipulation of algorithms, social media is often a breeding ground for, in the Commissioner’s own words, “disinformation… incitement to hatred and violence.” Companies themselves, although not necessarily perpetuating hate speech, are not entirely innocent. At the liberty of the company, AI systems can act as internet intermediaries, filtering content and preventing its release. As a result, companies can hold a tight fist on the dissemination of information and subsequently people’s opinions of it. This did not sit right with several member states of the EU, and in 2018 they began to formulate a plan for legislative measures. Yet, what this should really draw our attention to is not the potential of AI itself, but rather the potential of companies to use it for injudicious purposes. 

This negative connotation has permeated through into the social sphere. Depictions of AI are laden with robotic uprisings, eradication of the human population and the apocalypse. Take The Terminator or The Matrix, for example. Although this is, of course, based in fantasy, there is an element of truth to this fear – the reality that we are, in fact replaceable. In multiple sectors including ‘medical diagnosis, speech and translation, and accounting’ AI is now able to surpass us, and according to The World Economic Forum, by 2025, up to 85 million jobs could be mechanised. However, this isn’t necessarily cause for alarm. AI is intended to take on jobs that require limited critical thinking, such as copying and pasting, which could open the possibility for people to acquire new skills. In order to work with and maintain AI, workers will need to have a new database of knowledge, producing thousands, even millions of new jobs that have been predicted to surpass that initial decline. AI is forcing us to transition into a new era, to step into the future.

With so much uncertainty looming ahead, when considering the role of AI today, there are three things that are important to keep in mind. Firstly, it is not necessarily the AI themselves that cause problems but the people who wield them. Secondly, even if AI can overtake human capabilities in certain fields, their art, music and decision making will always lack a key ingredient: humanity. And finally, if you ever feel uneasy, remember AI isn’t always a source of evil – plenty of people have cried over the bicentennial man.  

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