It appears that artificial intelligence and machine learning have become the big buzzwords of 2017 as businesses desperately try to disrupt rather than be disrupted. The result? Countless tech websites warning of a dystopian future or machines rising up to break free from their human masters.
It’s Already Here
However, if we take a step back and look at the digital landscape, we’ll see that the world of automated decision-making is already here — and has been for some time now. From your online loan request to being selected for a job interview, it can all routinely be determined by a machine rather than a human being.
The problem we are just now noticing is that very few people appear to fully understand many of the advanced algorithms that we’ve become so reliant on. At the very least, the backbone of this technology needs to be completely understandable by its creators and — most importantly — accountable to its users.
Most of the excitement around solutions such as IBM Watson is that it continuously evolves and learns from data that’s fed into it. The underlying concern, however, is grounded in the realisation that this is the first time we’ve built machines that we, as their creators, don’t fully understand.
Who’s the Master?
Advanced algorithms are already transforming entire industries by dramatically increasing revenue and offering a competitive edge. At the same time, many are starting to question whether there could also be a dark side to AI — or how we can prevent it from becoming a dangerous master. Could our greed for increased efficiency, productivity, and profits be leading us to create the path to our demise?
In business, we’re already putting profit before people. In war, we’re using autonomous weapons to fight our battles. Anyone with a sense of foresight or responsibility towards the world our children will inherit could certainly be forgiven for hearing more than a few alarm bells going off about the direction that we’re taking.
Removing any element of humanity from either the workplace or war zones sets a very dangerous precedent. Equally, removing accountability from the machines we created is also a road that nobody should want to go down. Yet these are only a few areas of obvious concern.
A Delicate Balance
Certainly, our world has been wonderfully transformed by technology. But it also risks being a slave to it. For instance, there are a handful of failure points — if attacked or disrupted — that could cripple our entire infrastructure. For example: if the power or network capabilities of our air traffic control, power grids or finance system were compromised, how long would it take for supply chains to stop? Fueled by trending social media comments, an inevitable buying panic would quickly ensue. Supermarket shelves would empty quicker than most of us would like to admit.
And yet…it’s also important to remember that technology creates as many roles as it removes from the employment landscape. The arrival of the automotive industry is one great example. Likewise, if we look back at job positions a mere 50 years ago, many of those roles have have little to no relevance in this digital age. The arrival of web developers and social media analysts, however, has more than filled that void. Moreover, the concept of a job for life is nothing but a distant memory. We too must adapt to the changing world in which we live in order to be successful.
Responsibility vs. the Dark Side
When it comes to technology, we need to remember that with great power comes great responsibility. In 2017, for instance, marketers struggle to contain their excitement at the opportunities that AI-driven personalised experiences can offer brands. Yet, once again, there is a flip side of the coin. That same technology could also be responsible for launching adaptive or situational malware that can learn the best time to attack — and even defend itself from being shut down.
Despite how far we’ve evolved, it’s the same human traits that remain our biggest cause for concern. Perhaps it’s not technology or the combination of AI and machine learning that we should be fearing — but rather a flaw in our human condition that allows us to destroy with the same apparent ease with which we create.
The dark side of human nature seeks greed and war at the expense of others. This has been hammered home through the work of Charlie Brooker. In this view, our love and fear of all things tech bring with them a black mirror image of unanticipated consequences, fueled by our misuse of our 21st-century digital tools.
So when the bad guys use AI to penetrate vulnerable defenses, maybe it’s not the technology we should be blaming but the human race. Still…could this same technology step in to save us from ourselves? It seems our future has more questions than answers. What side of the fence do you sit on?
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