During the Christmas season I watched that wonderful classic, “Miracle on 34th Street,” starring Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne, and Natalie Wood. About the same time, I had learned of the writings of Samuel Strauss in The Atlantic. I realized that both “Miracle on 34th Street” and Strauss were dealing with issues similar to those we are wrestling with today related to artificial intelligence (AI).
Perhaps the most famous lines from “Miracle on 34th Street” are:
Susan Walker: I believe, I believe, I believe.
Fred Gailey: Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.
Kris Kringle: Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind.
The point made is that what is most important about Christmas – or more broadly, life – exists beyond the material world. What is most important are those abstract ideas of virtue, value, and goodness. The alternative option in the picture was to make Christmas about commercialization. The argument is that the true spirit of Christmas was not commercial but spiritual.
Addressing a question in the same genre, Samuel Strauss wrote:
The problem before us today is not how to produce the goods, but how to produce the customers. Consumptionism is the science of compelling men to use more and more things.Samuel Strauss, “Things Are In The Saddle,” at The Atlantic Monthly, November 1924
In the 1920s, Strauss wrote about the impacts the Second Industrial Revolution was having. After writing the above quote about producing more consumers, he went on to write:
Consumptionism is bringing it about that the American citizen’s first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer.Samuel Strauss, “Things Are In The Saddle,” at The Atlantic Monthly, November 1924
Strauss in the 1920s and “Miracle on 34th Street” in 1947 were talking about the forces that were resulting in the replacement of abstract values with materialistic concerns. Today we wrestle again with the same issue in a different context.
Social media companies have learned that they can be very good at producing partisan zealots. Further, they have learned that there is a lot of profit to be had from producing partisan zealots. The question becomes whether those companies and the regulators that oversee them will allow the unhindered pursuit of profit to take precedence over our society’s needs for an informed electorate. The AI techniques that use disinformation to undermine generally held values are effective. With carefully crafted disinformation, AI can create a perceived reality that will result in victims taking a desired action. Should our society allow the degradation of our citizens to facilitate the pursuit of profit?
The answer seems obvious: Our society is best served when the electorate is dominantly populated by people of good character, who have accurate information to use in making their decisions. To accomplish that happy state, we must put the priority on the abstract, non-material values and then facilitate the use of those virtues with fair and accurate information. However, a corollary is that then we will all see that almost all important issues can be viewed from a variety of perspectives. Thus, there is support for a variety of possible solutions. Only time will tell us which solutions best solve a problem.
Just as important are the unintended consequences that result, which may result in problems even worse than the first problem. AI can lead us to a simple view of the world, but it will not be an accurate view. The real world is complex and contradictory. Those dealing with the real world will come to have different opinions. Those opinions will be worthy of respect because they present different perspectives of a complex reality. The best solutions are usually intelligent compromises serving a variety of conflicting but legitimate concerns. The result is that we can expect that others will have different opinions from ours and those different opinions are worthy of respect as are the people who hold them.
Technological advances are quickly introducing the created universe. In a recent NVIDIA press release, Jensen Huang, founder and CEO of NVIDIA, said:
The dawn of intelligent virtual assistants has arrived. Omniverse Avatar combines NVIDIA’s foundational graphics, simulation and AI technologies to make some of the most complex real-time applications ever created. The use cases of collaborative robots and virtual assistants are incredible and far reaching.NVIDIA Press Release, “NVIDIA Announces Platform for Creating AI Avatars; NVIDI Omniverse Avatar Enables Real-Time Conversational AI Assistants,” November 9, 2021
The company goes on to say:
Omniverse Avatar opens the door to the creation of AI assistants that are easily customizable for virtually any industry. These could help with the billions of daily customer service interactions – restaurant orders, banking transactions, making personal appointments and reservations, and more – leading to greater business opportunities and improved customer satisfaction.NVIDIA Press Release, “NVIDIA Announces Platform for Creating AI Avatars; NVIDI Omniverse Avatar Enables Real-Time Conversational AI Assistants,” November 9, 2021
Companies and political parties will soon have more powerful tools to create the world they want us to believe, resulting in our doing things they want us to do, like buy their products or vote for their candidates. One thing is certain about these efforts, they will not be controlled by our values. We are not the best version of ourselves when we buy into a manufactured universe and are guided to act in ways that serve these influencers.
The challenge to be something other than an automaton is large and getting larger. Perhaps our most effective tool in our fight for independence is time management. We need to spend less time being influenced and more time contemplating our values and their application.
Another tool we have is reality testing. We can ask: If the “reality” I am being presented is false, how might I know that? Few of us have deep experience of the many “facts” we are being asked to believe. We will need to be insightful and spend significant time contemplating whether the “reality” I am being shown is a faithful reflection of the actual world. A useful tool is that manufactured realities will only contain the information available to their creators. Generally absent will be non-quantifiable data and certainly the spiritual realm of virtue, value, and goodness.
As AI-powered realities grow in might, we will have to fight hard to remain grounded and keep hold of true reality. We will have to fight hard and skillfully if we are to keep the true spirit of Christmas!
In case you missed it:
What Is AI Doing To Me? How AI Influences Our Concept of Reality. Reality is far more than what can be quantified by a computer. Our task is to refocus on the full reality of life and resist the temptation to buy into the AI’s implied message that reality is limited to quantified data. (Stephen Berger)