Our future is determined by the stories we tell ourselves. So says futurist Nikola Danaylov in his online series exploring the years and decades to come for humanity. In our previous posts, we introduced you to Danaylov and examined his perspective on science. Now we will turn to his treatment of technology and artificial intelligence.
The Technology Story
Like his perspective on science, Danaylov brings a balanced understanding to technology. Technology “is not an end-in-itself,” he says. “Instead, technology is merely a means-to-an-end, a tool.”
Jonathan Bartlett has also written about technology as a tool. In 2019, Elon Musk and Jack Ma shared a stage to debate the future of technology and artificial intelligence. Here’s what Bartlett had to say about it:
For Ma, technology is a tool for our benefit. In his thinking, our technological future will bring us to a point where the average person need only work a few hours a week. Technology will automate away most of the treacherous or dull tasks and allow us to spend more time being human, engaging in the arts, and engaging with each other.
Musk’s view of technology is, well, a bit different. For Musk, technology is not a tool to promote humanity. Rather, technology will take humanity’s place of leadership in the world. Humans will have a choice to integrate with our technological masters or be left behind as a relic of evolutionary history, just one more living fossil roaming the landscape.”Jonathan Bartlett, “Is Technology a Tool or a Tyrant?” at Mind Matters News
At first glance, Danaylov seems to side with Ma – technology is a tool, to be used to augment human experience rather than usurp humanity. But in a subsequent chapter addressing artificial intelligence, the train begins to derail.
The Artificial Intelligence Story
Turning to artificial intelligence, Danaylov states what we all know: We have reached a point in history of machine dependency. “If we were to turn off machines invented since the Industrial Revolution,” he writes, “billions of people will die and civilization will collapse.”
Unprecedented advances have been made in technology since the Industrial Revolution, especially in agriculture and medicine, fields that are essential to the quality of life we take for granted today. Danaylov assesses our present correctly, but makes the fatal error of expecting too much of AI capabilities in the future:
Contemporary experts may disagree on when artificial intelligence will equal human intelligence but most believe that in time it likely will. And there is no reason why AI will stop there.Nikola Danaylov, “Chapter 11: The AI Story” at Singularity Weblog
Danaylov fears a future in which AI supersedes humanity. His solution is to ensure that we get the AI origin story right so that we create a peaceful co-existence between humanity and evolved robots.
[W]hat if, like us, AI ends up with a story of being the pinnacle of evolution, the smartest species in the universe, and, ultimately, God?
This ‘AI-ism’ is going to be to the AIs very much like what humanism is to us, humans. Would it be surprising if it uses this AI story to justify enslaving and killing billions of humans and destroying the biosphere?! Just like we are using ours to justify killing 73 billion animals and 1.3 trillion aquatic organisms every year…
That is why it is crucial that humanity transcends humanism to embrace post-humanism, post-anthropomorphism, post-exclusivism, and post-dualism. Because one specieist story should not be replaced by another.”Nikola Danaylov, “Chapter 11: The AI Story” at Singularity Weblog
Danaylov’s claims are exaggerated. There are many experts in the field of artificial intelligence who are doubtful of the futurist claims of AI enthusiasts.
For instance, computer scientist and leading researcher in the field of AI, Michael I. Jordan, says that AI is “showing human-level competence in low-level pattern recognition skills, but at the cognitive level they are merely imitating human intelligence, not engaging deeply and creatively.” Likewise, François Chollet, a senior staff software engineer at Google, has voiced his own skepticism about AI matching (much less, surpassing) humans in intelligence. Computer scientist Erik J. Larson dedicated an entire book to the topic entitled The Myth of Artificial Intelligence.
Mind Matters News has highlighted before the limitations of artificial intelligence: AI is limited to algorithms, lacks creativity and the ability to understand, lacks subjective experience (also known as qualia), and its achievements are very narrow in scope.
Further, how does Danaylov expect humanity to get the origin story of AI right when we can’t even get our own origin story right? There is fierce debate about humanity’s origins, and many experts in scientific fields who disagree with the wholesale embrace of Darwinian evolution.
Wisdom Worth Keeping
Much more likely than the potential of AI overlords is the potential of totalitarian leaders wielding AI for their own power. This is already reality in China, for instance, where state-of-the-art facial recognition technology keeps track of each member of their 1.4 billion population. This nationwide system is intended to keep the populace in line not just with criminal law but with civil norms and submission to the Chinese Communist Party. It is also being used to enslave the Uyghur Muslim population.
Returning to his chapter on technology, Danaylov offers sound wisdom that we should also use to quell the overly-excited predictions about AI:
Instead of focusing on the technology, we might want to invest some time and resources, perhaps most of them, on improving ourselves instead – i.e., who we are being, what we are doing, and why we are doing it in the first place.Nikola Danaylov, “Chapter 9: The Technology Story” at Singularity Weblog
Technology, says Danaylov, is not a crystal ball giving us a glimpse of the future. It is a mirror. Instead of spending time trying to fix a mirror because we don’t like the image, we might try improving the image that stares into the mirror.
“Therefore,” says Danaylov, “what I’m proposing is that, at the end of the day, it is not about technology. It is about us and what we do.”
It is for that reason that the power of story remains central to Danaylov’s reflections. In order to improve ourselves, we must begin by telling ourselves the right story. Danaylov may be wrong on the potential of artificial intelligence, but his series offers many gold nuggets of wisdom worth keeping.