San Francisco’s vote – along with the release of an AI robot that can write reasonably well and Elon Musk’s demonstration of a monkey tapping on a screen using an implanted brain chip – have sparked more thoughts about potential threats to our technological future.
The risk is that we take wacky dystopian scenarios seriously and allow ill-informed Luddism, combined with the particular advocacy of potentially threatened incumbent industries, to crimp technological advance.
Robots have had terrible public relations for a century now with little or no justification. What have they ever done to anyone, other than vacuuming the corners of our homes and maybe delivering pizza? Based on the historical record, it is robots who should fear humans, since we are guilty of every crime imaginable, sometimes on an indescribable scale, while robots have minded their own business.
The phrase “killer robots” is irresistible to people and, of course, has, shall we say, negative connotations. After all, robots are just a tool, like any other.
The police already have all sorts of mechanical tools that help them track down suspects and, if necessary, kill them, from radios to cars to battering rams to helicopters and, of course, guns. If we trust a cop with, say, a Glock 19 – a deadly weapon – there’s no good reason to deny him a killer robot in a mass shooting or hostage situation.
It’s always easy to say that someone else should put themselves in danger. There will come a day when insisting that the police not deploy robots will be like insisting that every mission to neutralize a terrorist be piloted by a manned aircraft instead of a drone.
In Dallas in 2016, police used a robot with explosives to take out a sniper who had shot and killed five officers. What would have been more dystopian – more officers getting shot, or a killer robot doing the job without exposing anyone else to harm?
Nonetheless, the San Francisco board bowed to the mob on Wednesday and scrapped the new policy – showing once again that, regardless of our other virtues, humans can be irrational.
The deepest fear in movies and novels about robots and AI is that they will become so sophisticated and advanced that they will be out of our control, even if there is no way for a machine or algorithm to develop a human will.
Even if it were theoretically possible, we are extremely far from the moment when robots achieve autonomy, when AI corresponds to human intelligence, or when microchips augment or fundamentally modify the functioning of the brain. Human intelligence is still such a mystery – and the variety of human interactions we take for granted is so subtle and vast – that truly replicating anything approaching it is like trying to send a manned mission to Pluto.
The AI chat bot, ChatGPT, is smart and fun as far as it goes. The poem, for example, which he wrote on the Axios media in Shakespearean style is impressive if you know that it is the AI that produces it. Otherwise, it’s crap. No one will ever build a machine that can reproduce Shakespeare because it was idiosyncratic creativity, the real spark of human genius, that made him what he was.
In the same way, AI has been able to write a direct news report on a baseball game for years, but the great Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell never had to fear for his job. .
The most plausible accusation against robots and AI is that they will disrupt the economy. This too is poorly designed. Yes, automation destroys jobs, but productivity gains lead to the creation of new, different jobs.
To take just one example, Rob Atkinson of the Foundation for Information Technology and Innovation notes that from the 1850s the number of railway engineers, conductors and brakemen has increased dramatically and has continued to increase throughout the century. Then, they began a long decline in the 1920s. As these jobs dwindled, auto mechanics grew from nothing to nearly 2 million in the 90 years from 1910 to 2000.
The rise of a better means of transportation, the automobile, destroyed jobs, but it also created a new industry. Trying to stop the mass adoption of cars to save jobs related to 19th century technology would obviously have been the height of madness.
We’re not exactly in a position to turn down labor-saving devices given that America’s population is aging. And, despite the belief that we live in a time of great technological disruption, productivity growth in the United States has been lackluster since 2010.
We need the best bots and AI we can muster. They’re tools for improving the economy and human well-being and they shouldn’t be feared because – decades-old spoiler alert – HAL turns out to be a dastardly villain in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. “.