Age Against the Machine

Steve Wozniak, born 1950. Bill Gates, born 1955. Jaron Lanier, born 1960. Elon Musk, born 1971. These men are associated with all things tech and digital. Gates and Wozniak are icons, co-founders of Microsoft and Apple, respectively. These days these two spend their time being inspirations to erstwhile technology entrepreneurs: Gates the sage of the strait-laced, Wozniak the prophet of the iconoclasts. Lanier was a former employee at Atari, and an early proponent of virtual reality. The polymath Lanier is probably the most prolific writer, squeezing in well regarded books between composing classical music. Elon Musk is co-founder of Tesla motors among other tech businesses (I guess cars, if they are electric ones, fall under the aegis of “tech”). He is undoubtedly the most active of the quartet with respect to producing new technology.

Musk is also how I came about writing this post. I read a news story at TechCrunch about protests at the recent South by SouthWest (SXSW) – the festival for the cool and the connected. The protests, in part spurred on by comments from Musk, was an anti-robot protest. From the article in TechCrunch:

“The protest spokesperson cited Elon Musk as a prominent person who has expressed concern about robots and the development of artificial intelligence, and in fact TechCrunch reported in January about a $10M donation by Musk to the Future of Life Institute to ‘keep AI [Artificial Intelligence] beneficial to humanity.'”

Anti-Robot Protester at 2015 SXSW

Anti-Robot Protester at 2015 SXSW

Robots? Future of Life Institute? I would’ve dismissed the notion if someone so firmly ensconced in the tech world, and profiting handsomely from it no less, weren’t so concerned.

The Future of Life Institute‘s rather ominous webpage header reads: “Technology has given life the opportunity to flourish like never before… or to self-destruct.” On that website is an open letter, signed by hundreds of artificial intelligence experts, stating that “We recommend expanded research aimed at ensuring that increasingly capable AI systems are robust and beneficial: our AI systems must do what we want them to do.”

So apparently Musk and other experts think we should pump the brakes – or at any rate put up a few yield signs – on the road of technological progress.

In social sciences, when one talks about perceptions of new digital technology (not only AI, but other types of social media) opinions can be placed into two categories- utopian and dystopian. The utopians view new technologies as increasing wealth, making our lives easier, enhancing the democratic process, and ensuring free speech. The dystopians see new digital technologies as increasing government surveillance, removing the human element from social interactions, reducing our ability to think and concentrate, and increasing income inequality.

There are more utopians than dystopians for sure. And as consumers – both individuals and states – embrace new technologies with gusto, the utopians always seem to be on the right side of history. For example, I am dystopian when it comes to the “internet of things” and think that we should be mindful of connecting computer networks to everyday appliances as it increases the ability of state surveillance. But I’ll probably get a coffee maker for Christmas that I can turn on with my smart phone (which of course means that Uncle Sam will know that my favorite coffee is Godiva Chocolate Truffle. If our nation ever gets into a war with Belgium, I may be under suspicion). And when a dystopian does make a dent in the mainstream stream of consciousness, such as David Carr with his book The Shallows, their ideas are filtered through a prism of not being from inside the Valley of Silicon. They are old outsiders, haranguing against something they don’t quite understand.

But when Gates, in his Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) expresses concern, well that means something. When Wozniak does the same, well people may take notice. Always colorful, Wozniak says in a ComputerWorld article: “I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people. If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they’ll think faster than us and they’ll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently. Will we be the gods? Will we be the family pets? Or will we be ants that get stepped on?”

But this goes beyond AI. Lanier has developed the most sustained and articulate arguments with his books You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future. This early proponent and developer of virtual reality has been especially critical about both the mob inducing effects of anonymity online (he was very prescient in this regard, making these comments way back in the early 2000’s) and the exploitative nature of Facebook and Google. A 2013 article from the Smithsonian quotes him as saying ” it’s selling people [their advertiser-targetable personal identities, buying habits, etc.] back to themselves.” Lanier critiques more than AI, but the ever encroaching presence, and domination, of the digital environment over the physical environment.

Jaron Lanier has become very critical of the direction the web has taken.

Jaron Lanier has become very critical of the direction the web has taken.

I do not know enough about AI to be as spooked as Musk, Gates, and Wozniak. Lanier has an understanding of web technology that I will never have. But my guess is that their concerns are grounded in accumulated wisdom that allows them to reflect on the past and project into the future. Its no coincidence that all four are over 40.

A parallel can be made to society as a whole. With the Internet being about 45 years old and the web about 20 years old, society in general may have reached that age as well. Maybe we can start thinking about what the digital environment means for human progress. AI, the web, and social media are much more than wealth generators. They are new mechanisms for the the alleviation of human suffering. Maybe some of us are old enough to see that now.

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