A recurring theme in future of work-related commentary goes along the lines of, we must use AI for the benefit of humanity, we mustn’t allow it to entrench bias, we must use AI to solve our greatest problems (the economy, social injustice, the environment et al), we shouldn’t weaponize AI or use it in policing, we shouldn’t use it to profile people, AI should be a force for good.
In short, AI should be used to build the utopia we all dream of, and not be instrumental in creating the dystopia many people fear.
These thoughts, clearly, come from a good place. They reflect the hopes and dreams of intelligent, well intentioned, reasonable people. Who could disagree with them? No one, in their right mind, surely?
Why am I about to then? Well, because of the naivety. Naivety that, frankly, grates.
In truth, AI is going to be used for the benefit of some humans, it will entrench the biases of powerful people, AI will be the source of huge wealth generation which will be wildly unevenly distributed, it will play very little role in making the world more environmentally sustainable, AI will be central to the next generation of armaments, the next generation of policing (including profiling), AI will produce many “good” outcomes, but many bad ones too.
These, I’m afraid ladies and gentlemen, are just statements of fact.
What the utopians (or simply naive) don’t see, or can’t comprehend, is just how savage the real world still is, 362 years after Thomas Hobbes wrote about life being “nasty, brutish, and short”. Though we think we have evolved, and awoken, life is still, as Hobbes went on to put it “a warre of every man against every man”. Now it just lasts twice as long as it did in his day.
Don’t believe me? Watch The Loudest Voice. Read https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-08-08/i-tried-hiding-from-silicon-valley-in-a-pile-of-privacy-gadgets. Watch the news from Kashmir, Hong Kong, El Paso. Follow POTUS on Twitter. Check the stocks app on your phone. Life in 2019 is people and events that Thomas Hobbes would instantly recognize.
The dreams that people are expressing with their hopes for the future, and which now seemingly rest on the shoulders of AI, are ideas that Hobbes would be entirely familiar with. Indeed, The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (good idea shortening it to Leviathan – Ed) is at its core an examination of human nature, in all its glory and gore.
Plenty of both then. Plenty of both now.
Regular readers (of me, not Hobbes) may be by this stage thinking, gee, Ben’s dark this week; is he off his meds? Perhaps he needs a holiday …
Well, dear reader, you may be right – I do need a holiday (and I’m just about to go on one); no comment re the meds.
What I am merely reminding you (and myself) of is the need to address the world as it is, rather than as one wishes it were. Of course, as a futurist one lives in the world of imagining how things will be, and it is natural to impose on that vision one’s better angels. But, any vision of the future has to balance the wish against the reality.
In What to Do When Machines Do Everything we wrote about this balance, suggesting that labelling oneself a dystopian or a utopian was a logic fail – the past was full of terrible things and people falling in love, as happens today in the midst of Russian mindf-cking and Brexit. Why, we asked, would the future only be good or bad? Surely, it will be both.
Crucial to this realism is the cold, clinical appreciation that this is a cruel world; full of love and joy of course, but underlyingly cruel, in which fate – where you were born, to whom, with what outcome – is entirely random and beyond anybody’s control, particularly yours. In which fate (luck, kismet, call it what you will) continues to play an outsize role in the fortunes of every single one of us.
Our cruel world sees people sacked or laid off for no real fault of their own, struggle with disease or disability that touches them for no reason, face the hatred of people who they don’t know, sees people buffeted by trade winds that shape their lives but blow far above them, by decisions made thousands of miles away that are entirely inexplicable and which are not personal (“it’s just business”) but which are nothing if not personal …
Our cruel world sees people steered by algorithms and adverts towards decisions that make no sense, to decisions that will ruin them, to short term pleasures full of long-term pain. Our cruel world forces people to flee their homes for a better life – sometimes for their life. Our cruel world sees rivers flood and forests burn and houses destroyed. Our cruel world sees people live in unimaginable luxury. And unimaginable destitution. Our cruel world sees people have the time of their lives. Or simply experience (through their phone) other people having the time of their life …
Our cruel world is run by those who don’t simply love money, but adore it, who view the 99% as entirely expendable pawns, for whom ruining others is merely the flipside of winning, who thrive knowing politics is merely the entertainment arm of the military industrial complex (as noted IT analyst, Frank Zappa put it), whose lusts and desires are the fuel for acts that won’t get them past St Peter’s velvet rope, who probably love their children too, but in April see them mainly as useful tax deductions.
This is our cruel world.
These are facts.
This is life.
This is the truth.
So, let’s keep on dreaming. Let’s keep on wishing. Let’s keep trying to corral our impulses to make the world a better place. Let’s use tech to help us do that.
But let’s not forget that this is a dog-eat-dog world – a jungle. In which we are all game. And hunters. A jungle in which the big beasts are going to use AI to make themselves even bigger beasts. A jungle in which your wishes and dreams are irrelevant and immaterial. Occasionally laughable.
Again, apologies for dampening the mood. Harshing your mellow …
I just wanted to interject a little bit of reality back into the discussion. Address the grating feeling.
Job done, non?
Anyway, for the moment, good luck to you and yours in your part of the jungle.
Now I’m off to hunker down in mine.