The fears of science fiction—robots subjugating humanity, cities destroyed by machine wars, humans made nearly extinct and forced to live underground in some sort of 1990s New York City rave culture—have expanded from the fantasy world of books and films to fact-based conversations at TED and on Twitter and in the blogosphere. The folks now warning of the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence include Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking. Even real-life Iron Man Elon Musk tweeted last year, "We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes." Maybe this is why he’s so eager to get to Mars.
It’s shocking to hear technology barons, who usually embrace any advancement and reject government intervention, urging caution and suggesting regulation. The worst-case scenarios of AI usually involve the machines becoming increasingly frustrated with us, their creators. They kill us because we are an impediment to the progress we created them to pursue. Or they kill us because we try to turn them off, because they’re trying to kill us.
But, really, what are our tech leaders so afraid of?
Is it that in a world where human and machine consciousness were indistinguishable, we could be friends with machines, and those machines could be programmed to sell us stuff? It would be as if your friends today all turned out to be "influencers" whose every utterance was optimized to drive your purchasing decisions. This would be horrifyingly effective advertising, but not genocidal, merely steps beyond following a brand on Instagram.
We already know what happens when nearly everyone on the planet carries a high-definition camera and handheld supercomputer: 86% of us make movies about our pets. Now, imagine billions more conscious beings making cat art in every medium possible. Scary? Yes, but it’s hardly a human baby farm.
Perhaps our tech pioneers are afraid of too much logic in our everyday lives. We could have congressional districts that make sense! An AI Congress could be the best thing ever, governing with full information based on the will of the people and not shadowy funders. If that’s too much to ask, what if AI could limit the marginal and meaningless choices we make each day: Which route should I take to work? Which of these 20 types of laundry detergent should I buy? What do I say during this moment of small talk that has lasted far too long? Let the AI decide!
With all due respect to the boldface AI worriers, do we need to invent a boogeyman from the future when we’ve got the present to worry about? Is tomorrow’s machine enslavement so much more terrifying than today’s vast amounts of child labor, human trafficking, and incarceration? Our current human law enforcement could certainly use some superhuman intelligence to counter the systemic and implicit bias that leads to such disparate levels of arrests, violence, and abuse.
We may be giving the machines and ourselves too much credit. We don’t need to imagine a future filled with human suffering at the (liquid metal) hands of supersmart robots. Many are suffering now at the hands of their fellow humans. It’s possible that artificial intelligence is the only way forward for a species that seems unconcerned with its own survival. Perhaps with all the time AI would save us, we would focus on the interactions and decisions that truly matter: our friends and family, the welfare of citizens most in need of assistance, and the health of our community.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.