Artificial intelligence … or artificial morality?


Today’s wall-to-wall conversation and media churn about AI is sounding very, very familiar. Not that Artificial Intelligence hasn’t made incredible strides, but it’s more the promises of AI, all the benefits humanity could reap from the growing AI revolution. We also hear cautionary voices, urging a more measured approach to spreading and improving the capabilities of AI to modify our lives. These voices, like those over the last half-century, are drowned out by AI’s wow-gee-whiz factor: those irresistible ways that AI can improve our economy and our personal lives.

Wow-factors leave caution in the dust. Just imagine what life, work, and education could be like if these wildly optimistic forecasts do pan out. What’s new is what’s attractive, with little concern for the dangers of these innovations. Nothing diabolical here, no Brave New World scenarios or global conspiracies.

Yet, from the 1950s to today, we’ve enthused about the bonuses of innovation and time-savers. I recall, as a kid, hearing speculation about what we’ll soon be doing with all our spare time and new affluence: more leisure, more golf or travel, more opportunities for study and self-improvement, more time for creative expression, etc., etc.

Back then, we prepared ourselves for more university enrolment, more research, writing, painting and music-making; we expected more health innovations and cures, longer lives, various implants, healthier foods — all of it! A shorter work week means learning new languages, participating in citizen science, and, best of all, we’d find solutions to the planet’s pressing problems — from global warming, acid rain and ozone holes to nuclear war, even to ending war itself. What optimists, to let ourselves be hypnotised by great promises!

Now, fifty to seventy years later, we’re working harder, with fewer vacations, earning no more or even less, fewer college enrolments and with all innovations patented to the gills so that only the largest corporate employers reap any benefit. Working people have become disposable in our new economies. The Earth has become our resource warehouse, with little thought to the future.

Most surprisingly, many of the internet’s great promises have yielded not better communication and more understanding between peoples and nations but more tribalism and division between the haves and have-nots — of everything. Sharing more? More cooperation? Be real. We have populations fractured into divisions and groupings. Our religions have not brought us closer to each other but are used to justify more divisions and even more cruelty than in the past. Fake and false news, disinformation, cyber attacks, rumours and fear-mongering are much too common. Racism, especially in the U.S. has become more blatant than anytime since the Reconstruction after the US Civil War. Jim Crow is back, down there, and it flows like gravity north and south of their borders. Abortion is either now banned or under attack in those regions open to US Big Money. CBC calls this “the New World Disorder”.

What happened? is a huge question with many responses but few answers; safe to say all the optimism and enthusiasm of those early days now seems hopelessly naive and childish.

What was it we missed? Where were the dark clouds in those early forecasts and predictions? Where are the flying autos, interplanetary travel and widespread leisure?

Has it been simple human greed, where anyone who could capitalize on an innovation grabbed it and ran, turning the rest of us into victims (customers)? Why has our faith in democracy and wise government faded?

One answer is that, for any of these questions, there have been persons and institutions (and corporations) willing to discard all principle and go for self-benefit, no matter the cost to the rest of us. So, yes, greed … in part. But why also do we fall for these great stories about increased leisure time, more AI-assisted labour benefitting all humanity, or at least the Free World’s one percent of humanity? …you tell me.

Minimally, isn’t more caution demanded of our AI work, given our past and present disappointments? There are already legal constraints on new CRISPER gene-altering technology.

How is caution enforced?