Fear May Be Our Friend In A Future Of AI
The following article is a product of a continuing collaboration between Dr. Jonathan Reichental, an award-winning professor and technology leader, and Noah benShea, America’s notable poet-philosopher and a Pulitzer Prize nominated writer.
Fear is one of humankind’s earliest and most effective warning systems. Certainly, in the absence of fear, it’s doubtful we would have survived long enough for so many of us to now anguish over the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) in our lives. But is this fear a warranted response?
Considering this question seems foundational to query a future of thinking machines.
Fear: Friend or Foe?
Our AI fears likely fall somewhere on a predictable continuum, but there’s a chasm of difference to consider. For instance, there’s the potential loss of jobs as a result of automation on one end and on the other, the risk of autonomous robot soldiers deciding to disobey commands and turning on their masters.
Perhaps our biggest fear of AI is that once we completely unleash it, there’s no going back and we are no longer in control. But, seriously, have we ever been in control or is this just the bias of our species’ hubris?
There are some who might think that we — homo sapiens — may have been challenged but inevitably victorious during our entire 200,000 or so years of our existence. They may hold the belief that we’ve dominated everything in our path. But anyone who has lived near a volcano, or has tried to find dinner in a jungle, has known fear often wears a human face.
Surely no one can doubt that while fear is the pain before the wound, fear can be a friend, even if the well-deserved humility of mortality has always been a humble pill to swallow.
Will humans inevitably be servants of AI?
If we bear a deep and pressing fear that AI will dominate us, the truly disturbing question might really be asking whether we are creating our own uncompromising masters. The answer to that question runs on two tracks that can be as embarrassing as it is concerning.
Yes, we created AI, and now we fear it will crack the whip. But perhaps behind this is the possibility that it will whip us into better shape. Better perhaps not only for us but for our planet’s survival.
When compared to mere mortals — raise your hand, that’s us — AI-driven robots look to be faster, smarter, cheaper, more reliable, more effective, and maybe more worthy of our trust than we are to ourselves. AI will have better memories too. It won’t tire. It won’t ask for a pay increase. And if AI dies it doesn’t seem to be an eventuality that will likely trouble them. Here too their indifference to this may be yet one more thing that troubles us about them.
AI can be stamped out on an assembly line to be more perfect in ways we, in our blind social bias, choose to describe “perfect” than we’ll ever be in DNA’s random card game.
Consequently, is it reasonable that we fear AI robots because they may stomp on the human ego, and stomp hard?
Will AI first destroy our egos and then steal our jobs?
In the 70 years of AI innovation, humans have largely benefited from its existence. Yes, it has displaced workers, but the data also shows that during this time millions more jobs were created in new opportunities and industries for humans.
There is legitimate evidence though that the accelerated adoption of AI could present challenges on a scale not witnessed, or considered, previously.
Some analysts maintain that automation could result in the loss of around 700 million human jobs by 2030, or 20% of the entire world’s workforce. Even as new jobs in new opportunities are created for workers, is it likely those numbers will keep up with the rate of the loss?
Technology and progress have always shifted the work of people. Sadly, people often don’t get the message of change until the change, even very positive change, has left them far behind bemoaning their fate. The makers of buggy whips cried when the mass auto came, but never imagined that auto mechanics was a workforce worth more than making whips.
Many argue that the numbers of potential job losses are exaggerated, that automation won’t reach that kind of scale. There’s also the notion of what the very definition of work, which is evolving quickly, will mean in the years ahead.
We all know that forecasting the future is a gamble. It’s only forecasting history that has assurances.
Fear is a call to action
The function of fear is not to freeze or immobilize us. Rather it calls us to pay attention and mobilize to required action. Unfortunately, when we fear, it is often a tango with an irrational response. Certainly this is our historic proclivity. It might be argued that this is our nature, our genetics. Even as our rational side reminds us, often loudly, that fear, in the main, has an emotional rather than a rational basis.
Wherever we’re heading, it’s never wise to put fear in the driver’s seat. Even while fear isn’t necessarily a weakness, a rational anxiety may mean we will be better prepared to be prepared.
A healthy fear of a future of thinking machines may just be the warning signal we need to motivate the right actions. Rather than an emotion that causes us to freeze or exist in a state of perpetual anxiety, it can be the emotion that helps us drive the right decisions.
In this fast arrival of thinking machines, we are all dependent on many of our decisions being the right ones. Even if fear fuels the conversation let us remember that courage isn’t the absence of fears but how we wrestle with our fears.
About the Authors
Dr. Jonathan Reichental is a professor and instructor at several institutions, including the University of San Francisco, and online through LinkedIn Learning. He’s also the founder and CEO of the advisory and investment firm Human Future, the author of several bestselling books on technology and business, and an in-demand keynote speaker. He publishes a popular newsletter called Postcard from the Future. Follow him on Twitter at @Reichental.
Noah benShea is one of North America’s most respected and beloved poet philosophers. He was a syndicated column contributor for the New York Times, and a Pulitzer Prize nominated and international best-selling author of 30 books translated into 18 languages. His JACOB THE BAKER series of books are embraced by millions around the world and are the subject of an upcoming feature film. Follow him on Instagram.