The Real Danger in AIWe are highly susceptible to suggestions about what an image means
By Jeff Gardner
The threat that artificial intelligence (AI) poses to us has been dominating the news cycle. Exactly what AI will do to us is hard to predict — it hasn’t happened yet. But some, like Elon Musk, worry that AI will be used primarily to peddle lies to us. Musk is right, but not because AI is the next thing in fake news. “Fake news” is already here, and it’s not composed of made-up stories. It is someone’s opinion being passed off as the story, the “facts” of the event. With fake news, the events are real, but the assigned meaning, the “frame” as it is called in the media, is manufactured.
AI’s danger to us does not lie in fakery, even deep fakery. Its danger to us is its ability to manufacture frames. The danger posed to us by frames comes from within us. The reason for this vulnerability is that our brains are hardwired to assign meaning to images. Even this text is nothing more than a string of images to which our brains have assigned a meaning.
Our brain’s “see this, assume that” function is physiological. The brain makes up about 2% of total body mass yet takes almost 25% of energy expenditure. If we had to think about what to do in every situation we would drop over from exhaustion before midday.
Not thinking about every action before we do it makes it possible for us to function as an organized society. For example, when you are driving, no-think actions like “see red light, stop the car” benefit you and everyone else trying to get across town.
The downside is that we are highly susceptible to suggestions about what an image means. This weakness has been the source of much grief decades before the advent of AI.
For example, in the late 1920s, the American Tobacco Company had a problem. About as many men who could smoke, were smoking, and sales were flat. To change this, the company needed women to smoke. The American Tobacco Company hired Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, to get women to smoke. Bernays drew on works by his uncle about how images could be used to shape behaviors. He staged an event in which women smoked publicly, proclaiming that their cigarettes were “torches of freedom,” symbols of their equality to men. And it worked. Despite the fact that women are twice as likely to develop cancer from smoking as are men, and despite the fact that children (who are often around women) breathe in more smoke than adults (children breathe faster), the number of women who smoke increased from the 1920s onward.
Flash forward 100 years and the spin industry is still at it, full tilt. Everything from actors portraying the healthcare provider you can trust (complete with lab coat and clipboard) to the camera panning down the sleek line of a car you can own (in place of the women that you can’t), a whole host of desires and opinions about yourself are played on and play up through images reflected back to you. And because you, all of us, are vulnerable to assigned meaning in images, you can expect AI to engage you, probe at you, and craft images and messages to you, in order to get you to buy and do things that make “you” feel like “you.”
What can we do about this? What is the answer to AI’s encroachment on our sense of self? Jesus Christ is the answer.
During His three years of ministry, what shocked and angered Christ’s contemporaries most was His insistence that every man, woman, and child, by virtue of their creation, were already a somebody. Already had value, with no status symbols needed. Christ ate with the poor, warned the rich about the futility of putting on airs, and refused placement at the head of the table. Over and over Christ tells any who would listen to stop worrying about what you wear or what you consume as a path to becoming you. You are already you, no brand names required.
This message of universal human worth and brotherhood scandalized the Romans. They saw Christians as a threat to their very status-driven, hierarchical state. Not the resurrection, not the miracles, but universal worth that cannot be bought (or sold) is the beating heart of the Christian Revolution. Jesus Christ preached this over and over: By virtue of being made in the image of God, by virtue of that image being reflected out and back in what you do, you are you. This is an enduring Truth. An objective Truth, and not the “my truth, your truth” trope that we are drowning in.
“I am,” said God to Moses. That was all the explanation and justification God needed. “You are Christ’s” is likewise all the justification and explanation you need to start figuring out who you are. Measure your sense of self, the “you” you ought to be, by the fruits of your godly labor, not in the images that are reflected back to you from the marketplace.
An AI revolution is coming. As someone who studies communication technology for a living, I am afraid that it will be disruptive. Yes, there are already weeds in the field. AI will sow many, many more. To buffer yourself and the ones you care for against AI’s coming disruption, get your house in order: you are the ones you should worry about.
Originally posted at The Stream.