Leaping First

Why are we constantly being blindsided by the negative impacts of technological progress?

Anyone with a passing interest in technology has been exposed to both the excitable cheerleading and the concerned hand-wringing that has accompanied the development of artificial intelligence over the last few years. Mark Zuckerberg is welcoming AI into his home while Elon Musk thinks we’re “summoning the demon.”  This combination of promotion and anxiety follows the introduction of most new technologies into the mainstream and, before even considering the merits of the two sides’ arguments, we already know who will win.

Our society’s compulsion to create and adopt new technologies is an unstoppable force and, despite some token pushback, our governments and regulators are extremely movable objects.  Uber’s relentless expansion of its ride hailing services into new markets is the purest distillation of this disparity.  Under former CEO Travis Kalanick, the company’s express strategy was to roll out in new cities and leave the arguing with regulators for later; preferably only after a formidable political constituency has been formed out of their drivers and users.  Since the replacement of Kalanick with Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber has made some noises about behaving like a responsible grown-up but the fact remains that investors were happy to reward Uber’s aggressive behaviour to the tune of a potential valuation of over USD100 billion.

Even Sergey Brin, co-founder of “don’t be evil” (well, until recently) Google and current president of parent company Alphabet, wrote a letter a few years ago in which he simultaneously noted the risks presented by widespread AI rollout and kept investors excited by ensuring that that Google and Alphabet would lead the way.  The tension here is so apparent that Brin begins the letter by quoting the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities.  The epoch of incredulity indeed.  Brin knows (like Kalanick and even Musk) that the early adopters can always line the walls of their mansions with lead and leave the naysayers, regulators and Luddites to see if anything scary crawls out of the fallout.

What are the risks?  Well, with AI there are the doomsday scenarios of artificial general intelligence (as opposed to artificial narrow intelligence developed to solve specific problems like distinguishing Pembroke Welsh Corgis from Cardigan Welsh Corgis, playing Starcraft, and driving cars) which, among other dystopias coming to a cinema near you, include the potential enslavement of the human race.  The experts differ markedly on the likelihood of such scenarios but on the more mundane and predictable consequences there is broad agreement.  For example, automation of labour intensive tasks by artificial narrow intelligences will decimate job markets.  The risk of a hollowed out labour market is real enough for Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Zuckerberg, Musk and other industry bigwigs to provide support to different versions of the idea that a universal basic income may be necessary to offset the potential harm.

But the introduction of UBI, like the too-little-too-late attempts to deal with the spread of misinformation on social media, would be an example of picking up the pieces of a system already broken by our relentless drive to innovate.  We end up in these scenarios because, without stronger mechanisms for international consensus building and standard setting, each nation is locked in a race to the bottom.  The only thing worse than adopting new innovations without knowing the consequences is being the last to do so – the prisoner’s dilemma played out on the largest stage.

This issue is inherent in an increasingly interconnected world (another consequence of the adoption of technology) in competition with itself.  We have had this fight before, whether in relation to international labour standards or the practice of profit shifting by multinationals.  Governments must consider positions they would otherwise avoid (scant labour protections, low corporate taxes) or risk capital flight as multinationals look elsewhere for more favourable investment conditions.  A country whose government frustrates the rollout of new technologies (by requiring social impact assessments or introducing a robot tax, for example) will risk penalising its local industries if their peers in other countries are not hindered by such concerns.

Unless we are able to significantly shake up this system, we will continue to sacrifice at the altar of technological progress.  The guiding ethos behind our drive to innovate isn’t the Silicon Valley cliché that we are trying to “make the world a better place” but the more banal (and ethically dubious), “If we don’t do it, someone else will.”

Photo via Good Free Photos

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