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July 24, 2018

The hype over AI


July 24, 2018

Does all the hype about AI sound just a little too familiar? If you’re old enough to remember the first beginnings of the Internet and the dotcom bubble, you might also remember the tsunami of hype that attended these events as they unfolded. Wired magazine made endlessly breathless predictions about how the Internet would transform humanity and bring about a technologically-driven utopia. Now we’re wrestling with how such a promising technology devolved into a netherworld of hacking, hate speech, exploitation of personal data, ‘dark webs’, misinformation, political chicanery, and citizen surveillance despite these glowing promises. In the latest twist, AI is being sold in a similar way by similar players and the cultural amnesia is impressive.

In the early nineties, I had the unusual experience of being the first journalist to write about the advent of the Internet. The genesis was that Vinton Cerf, ‘the father of the Internet’, was on the advisory board for a technology magazine where I was a staff editor. Vint had sent me an email describing how a Department of Defense network would soon be commercialized and available for public use. We ran an article breaking the news about this exciting development – the birth of the public Internet. The articles ran three months before the New York Times broke the story. It was from this vantage point that I watched the Internet hype bubble expand for almost a decade – not just in technology publications but in the mainstream media as well.

What’s past is prologue. The non-stop torrent of hype about AI is now taking us down the same path but with an important difference. While the Internet did, in fact, provide democratizing benefits by empowering users and still continues to do so, AI is a far more exotic and inaccessible technology. As such, it will be developed and controlled by well-funded and powerful organizations, whether the same Silicon Valley giants that have already been exposed as trampling over the rights of their users or corporations that will use it to exert more repressive control over employees.

As an editorial in The Economist gushed: “Using AI, managers can gain extraordinary control over their employees. Amazon has patented a wristband that tracks the hand movements of warehouse workers and uses vibrations to nudge them into being more efficient. Workday, a software firm, crunches around 60 factors to predict which employees will leave. Humanyze, a startup, sells smart ID badges that can track employees around the office and reveal how well they interact with colleagues”. Is the workplace of the future sounding like fun yet?

Giving corporations powerful and manipulative technology tools to intrude even more deeply into the personal lives of consumers and employees and then analyze that data for financial gain is a dangerous combination and a blueprint for dystopia. As was the case with the Internet, I believe that AI will end up providing some important benefits if and when used ethically and thoughtfully. But it also has the potential to do a lot of harm. Witness, for example, the ‘psychopathic AI’ being developed by MIT students.

My sense as a futurist, however, is that there’s also some good news here: Internet users are becoming wiser and more guarded about the unintended consequences of technologies that lure us in but then exact a steep price. The first wave of a user revolt came in the vigorous pushback that monopoly-provider Facebook received after its egregious privacy transgressions were revealed. I believe that over time, and as they come to better understand the implications, people will begin to reject AI applications and programs that are offensive, exploitative, and dehumanizing. In this sense, corporatized AI will eventually fail as some kind of utopian platform for the common good, just as the Internet in many cases has become a tool for subtly institutionalizing social and economic advantage.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Is Artificial Intelligence Too Dehumanizing to Succeed?’


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