Your role in technological progress

Your role in technological progress

“Understanding and addressing the social challenges brought on by rapid technological progress remain tasks no machine can do for us.” A quote from Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s article* in the New York Times. They were writing about Google DeepMind developments that are allowing computers to defeat humans at Go.

The reason they have said this I suspect is because they want people to think now about the consequences of when computers can really replace – and immortalise – our brains. It may be quite soon. It is coming a lot faster than most people are prepared to believe. What will be the choices for the human species when it has invented a machine that can replace it?

Obviously, the simplest and most logical is ‘turn it off’. Our experience of the nuclear bomb suggests that we may not do that. We tried to outlaw nuclear weapons. We failed, with the result that plenty of leaders now have the capability of developing real weapons of mass destruction. Some may have already done so. There are plenty of madmen in the world who would happily blow the planet and its occupants to pieces for some kind of power exhibition.

A species savvier than humans is a different matter. It is inconceivable that AI technology can be contained. The same – or other – madmen who want to blow us up also want the power brilliance can bring. And they probably don’t think that it can take them over, such is the hubris of men. They will get to a stage where the machine controls them totally. At that point we are all subject to the morality that has been built into the Artificial Intelligence.

Self-preservation is, of course, built into human DNA. Like anything that is emotion-based it can be manipulated, just as our natural consciences can. The learning time to reprogram us seems to be quite long. Take driving and smoking. It has taken us 100 years+ to master even the simplest road discipline and in many places it still has not really been recognised. Meanwhile millions of people have lost their lives through bad and irresponsible driving.

Smoking is even more dramatic. From 11th January 1964, the day the US Surgeon General issued his definitive report on smoking, to today is 52 years, and cigarette smoking persists at a high level especially in less educated societies. In the past half century there has been massive evidence of the dangers of smoking and yet we still allow the production and distribution of this dangerous drug. Unbelievable.

So what are your and my roles in technological progress?

First, to keep up as well as possible. “I don’t understand it” is not acceptable as an opt-out. Not understanding political influences has led to a very wide gap between the influential and the non-influential. It has led to unacceptable disparity in wealth, total lack of morality among many of the better off and a migration crisis we have yet only seen the tip of. Failure to understand and ponder technological progress will do as much, if not more, damage.

Second, train yourself – or get trained – to take a longer view of the planet and our species. Short-termism is the root of most apathy and virtually all surrender. Your view counts.

Third, engage with political and business leaders to see that your common sense and longer-term point of view is counted and considered. Without engagement you spit in the wind.

‘Thinking beyond the single need’ as Steinbeck put it, is the only saviour we have.

* The authors are co-founders of the MIT Initiative on the digital economy. They also wrote The Second Machine Age; Work, Progress and Prosperity in A Time of Brilliant Technologies.