The accelerating power of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics is daunting, and so are the mounting fears that these smart systems will take on a life of their own. It’s not just the storyline of science fiction that they could learn to evade human control and create disasters, displace people, and cause mass unemployment. It may even be possible that they could evolve into a superior silicon species.
Many are embracing this dystopia. Writer and founder of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly, thinks AI will “give rise to a technological version of socialism,” while Yuval Harari, bestselling author of Sapiens, claims that “dataism” will replace liberalism; “Infotech will…erode human agency. Democracy and free markets might become obsolete.”
Even now, an intelligent Internet of Things (IoT) is beginning to control our homes, cars, offices, and factories — and posing new dangers. Smart cars, for example, will pass on the faults of smartphones. “A car is like a cell phone, and that makes it vulnerable to attack,” said Jonathan Brossard, a security engineer. Now ponder what could happen when billions of these intelligent devices are wired into the IoT?
It would be nice to trust in what author Richard Brautigan called “being watched over by machines of loving grace,” but social media algorithms are flooding us with information overload and polarizing politics. Freedom House, a nonprofit focused on defending human rights, warned: “The future will be about controlling the masses through technology,” and another analyst worried: “In the past, wars were conducted with weapons. Now it’s through social media.”
Nearly all fields are vulnerable. The convenience of automated cars actually may cause more congestion. Elon Musk admitted, “…traffic will get worse.” Man-made biological agents could wipe out millions of people in unintended plagues — or deliberate attacks. Many are horrified at the prospect of AI-controlled weapons turning on people.
AI can be understood in terms of the biblical story about “eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.” Intelligence and knowledge are wonderful, but they exact a heavy cost. Just as the Gutenberg printing press unleashed a flood of information that led to decades of war and the Protestant Reformation, today’s digital revolution is driving a wave of disinformation, government gridlock, pervasive conflict, and other global threats.
The frontier beyond knowledge
These fears arise out of a “technology determinism” perspective that ignores everything beyond knowledge. Our current AI inherits a badly limited paradigm that excludes the vital role of consciousness. The philosopher Rene Descartes defined the mind as a dualism between objective knowledge in the brain versus the subjective world experienced by the soul. This crucial distinction still dominates philosophy and science.
The objective functions include perception, awareness, learning, memory, decisions, knowledge, and other factual information. In contrast, the subjective functions are inherently personal, or what scientists call “qualia.” This includes emotions, will, purpose, beliefs, values, imagination, vision, and other ethereal functions. The subjective level is more powerful because it spans the higher-order functions that shape the objective level. For example, knowledge may influence subjective values, but people usually select knowledge that serves prior beliefs.
I have been using the collective intelligence from an international panel of thought leaders to study these differences, and the results are striking. In one study, we estimated that AI is likely to automate 80 percent of objective functions but only 42 percent of subjective functions. The difference is that emotion, purpose, values, and other subjective factors are hard to define and simulate by AI, and they’re the source of inaccuracies, bias, and other problems.
Fundamentally, subjective factors must be specified by humans. For instance, you’ll always have to tell your car’s GPS navigation where you want to go. Intelligent machines are likely to take over routine service and knowledge tasks, but the technology will remain limited, and people will always want a real person to provide human contact and handle subjective issues.
Another study estimated the relative use of objective versus subjective thought. We found that subjective factors make up 73 percent of decisions made by individuals and families, 42 percent of organizational decisions, and 63 percent of decisions in politics and government. That averages 60 percent across all three categories. Even corporations, the model of rationality, use subjective considerations for nearly half their decisions. Contrary to the logic of knowledge, these results show that modern societies are dominated by subjective thought, or “higher” consciousness.
Beyond knowledge there exists a huge unexplored domain of creativity, entrepreneurship, collaboration, diplomacy, marketing, supervision, and other higher-order functions that are uniquely human. AI may be able to solve routine problems, but it can’t provide vision, purpose, imagination, wisdom, and other capabilities that are essential for sound leadership and making tough choices. AI is not going to solve the climate crisis or other existential problems.
The rise of human spirit
These studies suggest that we’re now witnessing the rise of subjective thought, or what could be called human spirit. As AI increasingly automates objective knowledge, human attention is forced to move up the hierarchy of consciousness, driving what seems to be an emerging Age of Consciousness. Henry Kissinger recently wrote in Time: “… what fascinates me is that we are moving into a new period of human consciousness which we don’t yet fully understand.”
Rather than yielding control to AI systems, our studies suggest that humans are likely to retain control of this subjective heart of AI. That’s where the danger lies and where people are crucial. To prevent runaway AI systems, we have to monitor their performance, detect potential problems, and correct subjective factors. A prominent example is the two Boeing 737 Max airliners that crashed because the automatic flight control systems malfunctioned and pilots had no way to override the system.
This requires a close, symbiotic relationship between AI and its users — a merging of man and machine — and the collective intelligence of minds and computers. Ultimately, however, humans will have to maintain mastery over this relationship. We’ll also have to curb our own divisions and other idiosyncrasies to guide all this intelligence successfully.
In the end, rather than diminishing people, the net effect of AI may be to enhance these higher-order talents that are unique to humanity. This may seem contrary to those who expect an AI takeover. I respectfully suggest that, yes, AI and the robots are coming to take your jobs. But this will drive more creative work, a more innovative civilization, and a flowering of human spirit.
Written by William E. Halal.
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