Editorial: The rise of AI
Two months ago on this page, I offered you an editorial written by a rudimentary artificial intelligence (AI) programme. I have also had fun asking it jokes and getting it to write hymns and sermons, crossword clues and my annual appraisal.
We’re at the stage of a new technology where it’s quite amusing. Some people get very excited about it, but it’s peripheral, and not hugely competent. It has novelty value, like when Google Earth began in 2001, allowing us to zoom in on anywhere on the planet – impressive for a fortnight, but quickly irrelevant. You turn away, and the world turns.
AI shows every indication of being a very big turn indeed. Take work, for example. Over the last 250 years the world has been transformed by the automation of manual labour. Now we seem to be at the dawn of the automation of intellectual work, the mechanisation of the middle class. Hollywood screenwriters are already striking to protect their jobs. The first wave of automation led to the invention of unions, social democracy, communist revolution and the consumer economy. Who can imagine where the second will take us?
AI has the potential to vastly increase our already gross inequality. Its ability to process vast amounts of data might make it brilliant at medical research and monitoring our bodies, with potentially transformative effects on human health. This technology will be owned by someone, as will the data, and this is likely to be a vast source of wealth, and of power over the people whose health they own. As with coal mining, so with data mining, the question is, Who owns the kit?
Another big change that seems likely is to our sense of what is true. When bots can conjure up fictional photos and videos of real people, our idea that the camera cannot – or usually does not – lie will quickly erode. Before the 20th century, we had to work out what was true without proof from photography, and maybe that will be the case again soon.
But AI is already having a less obvious effect on our sense of truth. Social media algorithms are tasked with persuading us to click on ad-funded links, and they achieve that by showing us news stories that make us angry and feed our existing prejudices. As a result (partly), society is polarised into outraged factions, each with a completely different story of what’s going on in this wicked, crazy world. The computer scientist Stuart Russell said, ‘Social media content-selection algorithms … aren’t particularly intelligent, but they have more power over people’s cognitive intake than any dictator in history.’
And this is above all what we can expect from AI, I suppose. The unexpected. We can think of many areas where its power might be applied, for good or ill, from abolishing the language barrier to new weapons of mass destruction. But when a few tech companies maximise clicks on social media sites, it undermines democracy. Like God in the first chapters of the Bible, we are creating something with an unpredictable life of its own. The results are unforeseeable, maybe immeasurable. By chapter 6, even God repented.
This article was published in the July 2023 edition of Reform