An Age-Old Fear
Lately the news, business and main page, have been filled with stories about the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Mostly this has focused on the Microsoft product Chat GPT, which is sort of a souped-up search engine. Chat GPT also has the capacity to learn and to engage with people in a much more human way. This has led to the predictable fear mongering and posturing that most new technologies generate. Everyone from ethicists to economists to politicians are weighing in and usually in a negative way. There are calls for regulating AI to outright banning it.
None of this is new. Humans have been afraid of machines since at least the early 19th century. The Luddite movement went so far as to sabotage machines for fear they would lose their jobs to them. The fear of loss of employment has always been one of the chief fears regarding technology and machines. Along with this fear is the notion that somehow machines will rob people of their essential humanity. Of late, in the more modern era, there is the notion that machines will rise up, gain sentience, and take over humanity. This is most prominent in the cultural phenomenon known as the Terminator series of films. In short, a good chunk of the human race considers machines to be “bad”.
All of this consternation and hand wringing is crap. First, let us dispense with the hoary notion that machines are “bad”. The concepts of good and bad are contingent upon moral agency. You must have a choice to make in order for your actions to be considered as good or bad. Most assuredly machines are not moral agents, as they have no choice. They are programmed, told what to do, period, full stop. Yes AI can learn. That is what it is programmed to do. It can interact in a more human-like fashion. That is what it is programmed to do. Mostly what Chat GPT and the like do is very quickly scrape the internet for all manner of information about the question at hand, then synthesizing an answer. In short, it is mirroring human behavior, and it is scraping all manner of garbage out on the web. Every racist, homophobic, conspiratorial lunacy is available for AI to “synthesize” into an answer. This technology has a ways to go to become useful to humans, and it is an infinite distance to becoming dangerous in and of itself.
To suggest that we face some sort of Terminator type risk is to suggest that machines will gain consciousness, or subjective feeling. That is that they will become human. This is utter fantasy. This article from 2021 does an excellent job of delineating the difference between intelligence and consciousness. Machines will, as always, do what they are programmed to do, no matter how intelligent they appear to be.
Whether machines are used for good or evil depends upon the humans in control. Yes, many times in human history machines, and technology have been put to immoral and inhumane purposes. This is the fault of those who use the machines in this way, not the machines themselves. What we can see in history is that when put toward peaceful uses, machines and technology have been enormously helpful to humanity. In fact, as I argued previously humanity’s use of technology helped build the entirety of the world we take for granted. This includes the eradication of slavery. On behalf of Industrial Capitalism, you’re welcome.
Let’s specifically debunk the myths surrounding technology and machines. First, they do not on net cost jobs. It is true that some industries are made obsolete because of machinery but to argue that we should not allow this to happen is to consign humanity to a level of stasis that would see us revert to a standard of living most of us cannot imagine and not allow us to maintain anywhere near the number of people on the planet. That is, billions would die. We do not even need statistics to know that billions more people are gainfully and productively employed now than in the past when we had less machines and a lower level of technology.
Along with this vast increase in employment is the fact that machines have made work easier and safer. The burdensome, backbreaking labor that marked most of humanity’s existence has been greatly reduced. Along with that, the incidence of job injuries is also much lower than in ages past. We should welcome the newest technology as a help to humanity the way the first humans welcomed the wheel. The only thing that will strip us of our humanity is if we choose to not progress and make this a better, wealthier, safer, and more comfortable world in which to live. Machines help us to become materially richer, and if I must choose between richer or poorer, I choose richer…every single time.
This Time is Not Different
Along with the age-old cry of “machines are bad” is the second oldest bit of claptrap, “this time is different”. No it is not. AI has great potential. As I indicated above, it has a ways to go before it makes a dramatic impact, but we should welcome and work toward that dramatic impact. Yes, AI will eliminate some jobs, the way machines in the past have done. We should not minimize the dislocation that those jobholders will experience. Yet, as seems likely, AI will eliminate jobs that humans do not want to perform. Is it really humanity’s dream that there always be burger flippers, and warehouse pickers, and corn detasselers?
The newest technology holds out the hope that we can once and for all dump these shitty backbreaking monotonous jobs in favor of more interesting and safer, and rewarding work. One of the great economic mistakes that anti-technologists make is to assume that there is a fixed amount of work for humans to do. Nonsense. When we advance to being able to perform a set of jobs more efficiently, or by machine, we shift that human effort to another task that we have on our list of goods and services. How long is that list? It is infinite, that’s how long. We are so far down the list already that even the framers of the constitution could not have imagined it. Simply because we cannot imagine what will land on the list in the future is no reason to short circuit that future.
Yes, we will have challenges ahead. Humanity always does. Yes, some will take the new technology and do harm to others with it (first on that list is government). Humanity always has. This is no reason to freeze our development. Or would we have been better off without that wheel simply because someone was going to run someone else over with it? The problems of a fallen humanity will always be with us, until the end of the age. However, maybe if we can create a world of safer, more interesting, and more comfortable work, we can tamp down the worst impulses of humanity. Freaking out about machines and using force to stifle needed innovation seems likely to stoke up those worst instincts.
If we move forward, as God intends us to, loving one another the way He loves us, and embracing the Golden Rule, in response to His gifts, then we can have that better world that taps into the deepest of human desires. We can save lives, make them safer, more comfortable and wealthier. Yet, we can only do this if we have faith enough in God to use the brains He gave us to not retreat and regress into fear.
Praise Be to God