The time of the programmers

Ahmed Mustafa
Friday 11 Aug 2023

Amid the current fanfare about the promises and threats of AI, it would be well to remember where the real issues lie.

 

It is difficult in today’s world to go for a day without hearing the words “artificial intelligence (AI).”  However, just like in the case of the other leaps in technology that preceded it, it is inevitable that the noise will eventually fade despite the current marketing drive that attempts to portray AI as the solution to all our problems.

AI is being heralded as the next major driving force for economies around the globe, replacing current models that have aged too quickly and led to a situation close to stagnation. AI is being deployed as some sort of magic wand that will radically change the way human lives function.

However, not everyone sees AI as a step in the right direction, and critics have been vocal in their opposition. Some argue that AI-operated robots will remove the need for humans to perform a variety of jobs. People are afraid of losing their professions, especially creative ones. There are also those who believe that AI could eventually outsmart and replace humans altogether.

Technological development has its merits as it makes life easier and helps us to inhabit planet Earth and explore its surroundings in the universe. On the other hand, there are other areas where its benefits are less clear. Some video games employ virtual reality with the aim of adding an extra layer of “realism,” for example, and this can plunge the user into an imaginative world where nothing is in fact achieved even if winning the game can give a feeling of satisfaction.  

In order to decipher the fanfare surrounding AI, it needs to be seen in its simplest form, which is ultimately just another leap in software programming. It is its reach that makes AI appear larger than life, as we are witnessing its manifestations in every area of life from academia to the visual arts. AI programmes are developed by human specialists better known as software programmers and engineers. Even “generative AI” – in other words, software programmes that can develop themselves – in fact function in the ways determined by their programmers.

The creativity element is very primitive, as all these programmes rely on the existence of “big data” originally produced by humans. Some US authors and artists have recently begun suing companies such as Meta, Google, and others that own AI products on the grounds that they infringe the copyright of creative work available online. They have supported their case with evidence of how these companies have “trained” their AI programmes by using their work.

Apart from the copyright cases, which the big tech companies can settle thanks to their deep pockets, the important fact remains that AI is mainly based on “recycling” data produced by creative human beings. Bots and programmes can produce at a much faster rate than the sharpest human mind, but they fall short as they are not producing anything genuinely creative.

One way to think about this is through the example of music sampling, where an original song already exists and is simply used as “data” by the sampler, who chops up the melody and manipulates the material to create a new sound. This can happen repeatedly and take multiple forms, but it cannot happen without the original source material.

The world is in an almost permanent state of transition, in which values and social norms simultaneously progress and regress, the economy experiences peaks and troughs, and new systems are born as others die. Some may see AI as a new beginning, as it has shown its ability to replace a plethora of human activities.

However, the notion that programmers are commissioned to develop software in accordance with our specific needs may not be a plausible one when it comes to AI. Needs and wants can conflict. We may sometimes want progress at almost any cost, for example, when what we really need is a more controlled and socially responsible approach.

For those in the AI industry, breaking down barriers and innovation is the number one goal, even if it means the emergence of unintended consequences such as plagiarism and the dilution of creativity. There are evident dangers in allowing today’s new software programmes to become like minds controlling human activities. Without a strict framework determining how breakthroughs such as AI are managed, we may find ourselves unable to reap their benefits.

Progress and development are integral parts of our lives, and in the same way that nature finds its own way forward, so do human lives. One should not be dissuaded from exploring what may seem to be foreign out of fear. Many members of my own generation tend to spend most of their time not looking at computer screens, and as a result we may well be the last people to buy into the world of AI.

For myself, I still believe in the central role that technological development and innovation play in our lives, but I am also wary about those in the driver’s seat, who may not always be fully aware of the direction they are taking us in.

 

The writer is a London-based seasoned journalist.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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