Stop worrying about AI

by George Lovell | | 0 comments

People are scared about the future of AI and super-advanced technology.

A recent poll reported that 42% of respondents fear that AI will replace their job, and that 47% of people felt extremely nervous that AI would progressively destroy the human world and that there are very significant risks associated with using AI. 24% of them expressed an angry sentiment against AI and its applications.

That's a lot of fear and negativity. We don't like that, so we've put together a case for why you probably shouldn't worry too much about future technologies.

"The robots are stealing our jobs!" - People, since 1920. Many large companies have announced plans to discard thousands of employees in coming years. People are losing their jobs to tech, but that same tech is simultaneously creating new job roles at an equal or greater rate. This is nothing new: 60% of current jobs did not exist in 1940. Historically, technology has always been additive. When the Polaroid camera was invented, artists panicked that no one would buy their paintings anymore, but have you seen the price of a da Vinci portrait? Humans provide value in a way that technology cannot. We have and always will find ways to co-exist with technology.

AI has been used to create deep fakes, internet trolls and scams. AI has also been used to track down and convict paedophiles and to diagnose early-stage cancers. On balance, It's surely been a net positive for humanity so far. Could the balance shift? Yes. But why assume that it will? We are (mostly) aware of the negative consequences of technology that we use today, but would you ditch your iPhone entirely to negate them? Didn't think so.

There's a good chance that the world will be a very different place by the end of the decade, or the next decade; or certainly at some point before 2050. This can be a startling realisation, but take solace in the fact that the present day is and always has been the best day to be alive. Lifespan, poverty, crime, freedom and peace have all been trending in the right direction since records began. Yes, we have blips - but by all accounts, and measured over a sufficient period of time, things keep getting better. Humans - our team - have applied their intelligence across various domains: science, engineering, art, philosophy etc., and this has transformed us from sick and scrawny tribes of subsistence farmers living out of mud huts to the rich and glorious cities we live in today, all in a matter of 4000 years. We're not going to suddenly start regressing. Technology is a multiplier on that same intelligence which took us from mud huts to skyscrapers; so if anything, technology should facilitate a much faster rate of progress.

There have always been doomsayers. How many times have they been proven right? Famine, drought, poverty and conflict are always just around the corner, but rarely does it materialise in such dramatic and disastrous fashion. Sensational claims quickly dissipate and are forgotten - that is until the next trendy prophecy emerges. Our negativity bias makes it such that stories of doom and gloom are more attractive to our primitive little brains. The media, through both human journalists and computer algorithms, capitalises on our insatiable appetite for catastrophe and conspiracy by driving such stories to the top of our feeds. A broken clock might be right twice per day, but 99 times out of 100, the simple, rational, boring narrative triumphs.

The future of tech is anyone's best guess.

Experts always disagree, and they are just as subject to bias as the rest of us. Remember that most experts have dedicated tens of thousands of hours to studying their specific field, yet they often arrive at vastly different conclusions. Take minimum wage for example: as you sift through news sources and blog posts you'll find overwhelming evidence in the form of scientific studies and expert consensus that proves beyond reasonable doubt that raising the minimum wage will result in job loss and economic damage. But dig a little deeper, and you will also find overwhelming evidence in the form of scientific studies and expert consensus that proves beyond reasonable doubt that raising the minimum wage will result in decreased unemployment and economic growth. This is outlined brilliantly in section II of my favourite blog post on the internet.

So whose opinion do you trust? You don't. Even the most evidence-based theories as presented by the world's leading experts can be refuted with equally "strong" evidence by opposing experts. This is before the raw data has been cherry-picked, misconstrued, manipulated to fit a pre-existing belief or agenda, and neatly packaged in a dumbed-down yet compelling format which makes you feel like an expert with less than 2 minutes of work. If economists can get it so wrong in a field that's existed for 250 years, then you probably shouldn't put all of your trust in one single expert working in an infinitely complex field that's almost unrecognisable from one year to the next. Anyone who stands by their conviction with absolute certainty should be avoided.

Take any 19th or 20th-century genius - they were wrong about most things we know to be true today. Consider this: It is 100% impossible to create a list of things that haven't occurred to you, yet that list would be 100x longer than any other list that you could make right now. That's true for every single person, all the time, including experts. We don't know what we don't know, and we never will.

Making predictions is more difficult than we like to imagine. How often is the weather forecast bang-on? How much money have you made from betting on football games? Sometimes we get lucky, but time and time again, we fail to make accurate short-term predictions despite having an abundance of data. To expect any one person to accurately predict the trajectory of a super-advanced technology and its social and economic implications over a 10-year span is quite unreasonable. You can go back and find some pretty laughable predictions made by world-leading experts such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk. This prediction gap will only increase as technology becomes more advanced because it becomes increasingly difficult (impossible) for any one person to understand it. So you may as well resign to the fact that even the experts - who know far more than you - will be mostly wrong in their predictions.

You don't know how it works. At best, you have an extremely vague understanding of advanced technologies and their implications, which you've cobbled together based on your favourite writing from those with a slightly less vague understanding. Dedicate every waking moment of your life to understanding something like AI and you'll still be way behind the curve. If it interests you, that's great, but don't treat any one opinion as gospel. Remain open to opposing viewpoints and possibilities.

Stoicism teaches us that we have power over our own minds - our opinions, judgements and attitudes - but not over outside events. Understanding and accepting exactly what is under our power is the key to leading a happy life. As Epictetus said, “The more you seek to control external events, the less control you will have over your own life.” A very tiny subset of the population has any meaningful control over how AI and other technologies will impact humanity. You have none. Any time and energy spent worrying about technology is sure to be wasteful and unproductive.

Fire is a really useful tool. It can also burn a city to the ground. That's why we have a fire service, firemen, fire extinguishers, fire doors, fire alarms and fire drills. We invented these things so that we could safely and effectively utilise fire without getting burned. Assuming we put the correct fire-door-equivalents in place for technology, we should be able to mitigate its potential dangers.

We don't see fire itself as good or evil, but whether it is utilised for good or evil can be entirely ascribed to human intent. Unfortunately, there will always be evil humans. Like tech, fire is neutral. How human utilise it will ultimately determine our fate. So perhaps it's not the tech that we should be afraid of, but the humans wielding it.

"The computer is a bicycle for our minds" is one of my favourite Steve Jobs quotes. Perhaps AI and other cutting-edge technologies are more akin to a rocket ship for our minds. We're travelling at greater speeds than ever before, which is kind of scary. Human ingenuity has got us this far without blowing up, so whilst we shouldn't be complacent, there's little evidence that we won't figure out what we need to as we go. We make mistakes, and we often look back, both at ourselves and society, and wonder how the hell we got it so wrong. Like watching a toddler learning to paint: it's a messy, sometimes painful, but altogether essential learning process. Generally, we humanoids figure it out, course correct, and come out ahead.

It'd be foolish to completely disregard the potential negative consequences of AI and other technologies, and we should all prepare accordingly with the information and intuitions that we do have. There's no doubt that it will bring challenges and opportunities, and that it will impact everyone differently. We must also recognise that on an individual level we have effectively zero control or predictive power over how it will pan out, so to worry about it is futile and only creates unnecessary stress. Instead, take a moment to appreciate that it's a wonderful and exciting time to be alive. You might just feel a little calmer as the robots incinerate your home.

Thanks for reading!

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