AI is a Tool, Not a Solution for EverythingLife is complicated and our problems can't always be solved through an engineering approach
AI is a tool. In the words of Robert J. Marks from an interview at last year’s COSM conference, it can’t be a “friend or foe,” because it’s not a living entity. It’s something that can be used (or abused).
Such a neutral, balanced attitude toward AI is alien to many Big Tech moguls who are pitching AI as the solution to many of the world’s complicated problems. For them, on the flipside of the doomsday alarmists, AI will usher in a new epoch of human progress. They may be partially right about that, but according to this writer at Slate, their hype reflects a commitment to technological “solutionism,” the idea that tech, once adequately suited for the task, can solve just about any given issue. Evan Selinger writes,
A term coined by the technology critic Evgeny Morozov, technological solutionism is the mistaken belief that we can make great progress on alleviating complex dilemmas, if not remedy them entirely, by reducing their core issues to simpler engineering problems. It is seductive for three reasons. First, it’s psychologically reassuring. It feels good to believe that in a complicated world, tough challenges can be met easily and straightforwardly. Second, technological solutionism is financially enticing. It promises an affordable, if not cheap, silver bullet in a world with limited resources for tackling many pressing problems. Third, technological solutionism reinforces optimism about innovation—particularly the technocratic idea that engineering approaches to problem-solving are more effective than alternatives that have social and political dimensions.-Evan Selinger, Solutionism is rampant in artificial intelligence hype. (slate.com)
Selinger notes that context is important when you’re trying to solve problems that, in his words, involve social and political dimensions. Perhaps another way to say it is that uniquely human problems demand human thought, conversation, and action to alleviate or address. Because we can understand historical and social context, we can approach certain issues with better insight and nuance. Selinger also references a 2022 Super Bowl Meta ad, which offers the metaverse as the obvious solution to social estrangement. If you’ve seen the commercial, you probably remember: it was a bit creepy and depressing.
Selinger also quotes OpenAI’s Sam Altman, who tweeted in February that ChatGPT will enhance student learning and personal productivity. But concerns over near undetectable plagiarism has complicated his optimism. In addition, he insightfully notes that the productivity hack proffered by AI will be “short-lived.”
Once everyone catches up and experiences the same benefits from automation, the standards for doing good work in competitive environments will rise. Washington University professor Ian Bogost thus characterizes OpenAI as “adopting a classic model of solutionism” and notes that tools like ChatGPT “will impose new regimes of labor and management atop the labor required to carry out the supposedly labor-saving effort.”
Technology critic Andrew McDiarmid thinks along the same lines, using the animated film WALL-E to illustrate his point in an article from last May. In the movie, humans have become obese and immobile, depending on machine intelligence to do everything for them. They’re comfortable, but unhealthy, unintelligent, and lead pointless lives centered on amusement and ease. McDiarmid writes,
The humans in WALL-E’s dystopian vision of the future haven’t been conquered by a hostile AI that has surpassed human intelligence. But they are still a vanquished people. They have happily handed the reins of their lives over to machine intelligence in favor of the comfort, convenience and perceived security it brings them.-Andrew McDiarmid, AI Will Overtake Humans, If We Let It | Discovery Institute
This seems like a more much realistic appraisal of AI, contrasted with both the apocalyptic and overly optimistic visions we see at play in present discourse. AI is a tool, but if we outsource our entire lives to it, the skills, joys, and even every-day difficulties and rewards that make life meaningful will diminish, leaving us handicapped in a variety of ways.