The future is here and it is shocking us to the bone.
It is called AI. It touches every aspect of our lives and far exceeds the cognitive capabilities of human beings.
The hype and fear around it because of its meteoric rise and exponential growth have reached a fever pitch. Look what AI can do? What can it not do?
Will its abilities reach a human level?
Even scientists and academics have fuelled the timbre, when the likes of Goldman Sachs claim that 300 million jobs will be affected and a team of researchers at Penn University author a study that 87 per cent of jobs will be heavily impacted, while The New York Times, The Washington Post and other journals paint a picture of AI machines running amok.
Will AI crush us like bugs until it turns us into slaves? Will it eliminate us altogether?
A drumbeat of doom is beating. We are told it will change everything, including possibly all life on Earth. Half of the academics believe there is a 10 per cent chance that AI will lead to human extinction.
Even Sam Altman, one of AI’s most prominent proponents, worries that it might end the world.
To make matters worse, a recent open letter by a long list of people including such enthusiasts as Elon Musk, Andrew Yang and Steve Woznak, leaders of the AI movement, stated that it is time to take a six-month pause of AI research to consider the risks.
Only nine per cent of average citizens believe that AI will do more good than harm to society.
The fear that non-human minds might eventually outnumber, outsmart, and replace us is apocalyptic.
It is true that the recent exponential growth of AI can take your breath away, but it has been going on for decades unnoticed and we have been the beneficiaries of its skills.
AI has significantly improved healthcare, education, banking, transportation, customer service, space exploration, entertainment and more.
20th Century Fox was able to put together the trailer of a film in one day, when it takes weeks and several hands to accomplish such a feat.
For example, who would have thought a decade ago that we could teach a computer how to detect cancer?
What is AI? It is merely the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems. It works by ingesting large amounts of data by humans and using patterns to make predictions about future states.
AI plays the role of an assistant, a tool to solve complex patterns based on human-stated methods.
It was not born yesterday or in the 1950s by British polymath engineer Alan Turning or even in the 15th century with the birth of science and science fiction. It has been around for thousands of years to ancient philosophers considering questions of life and death.
Inventors made things called “automatons”, mechanicals that moved independently without human intervention. A 400BC document refers to a mechanical pigeon created by a friend of Plato’s.
In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci created an automaton arrow. Were these the precursors of today’s robot?
The 1600s brought about the birth of science and science fiction. Frances Bacon (1561-1626), known as the “father of science”, wrote, “The New Atlantis”, the first science fiction tale of a fantastic voyage describing a mythical society based on experimental science and the wonders it could create.
Many more such tales were conceived by writers’ imagination throughout the centuries until we reached the 20th century which hailed a shower of varied styles, led by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
As science fiction advanced, science lagged behind because of the tedious method of time-consuming data collection and classification.
The 1950s era was a turning point for science, taking a giant leap, surpassing even science fiction.
Alan Turning’s framework of “Computer Machinery and Intelligence” paper in 1950 caused a rapid rise in interest among scientists. AI flourished from 1957 to 1972.
We have been familiar with the spectacular AI achievements and used them extensively since. Can we ever abandon our cell phones? We just took these technical advancements in stride, why suddenly do we fear AI?
We have good reason. It has improved so rapidly in the past decades, giving us no time to fully understand and digest it. It only happened in movies, we thought.
AI can read, write newspaper articles, novels that were up for awards. AI can see, speak, understand, chit-chat and soon models are currently being developed to smell human breath, detecting diseases — cancer, diabetes, brain injuries, etc.
Using cameras, a robot can identify ripe raspberries, pick them and place them in a basket.
Drones, and robots can move and by gathering data from facial expressions and body language it can understand.
IBM’s Project Debater can successfully debate humans. It can create paintings, music, songs and worst of all, it can read your thoughts. That would be catastrophic if it can gossip as well.
All those skills combined into one super artificial intelligence is daunting.
Nonetheless, fear is unfounded because humans are the ones who make it work.
They are only machines — they can copy, but have no conscience or consciousness. They cannot create. AI is not evil, dangerous or out of control.
It is up to us to decide how to use it. If we give it nukes it can eliminate the human race.
Are we foolish enough to do that? Maybe.
“Man is man’s ABC. There is none that can read God aright, unless he first spell Man.”
Frances Quarles (1592-1644)
A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.