In My Words: The unstoppable force of artificial intelligence vs. the immovable object of capitalism
Professor of Sociology Tom Arcaro writes in this column for the Elon University Writers Syndicate that advances in artificial intelligence require regulation.
This column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate was published in the Burlington Times-News. Views expressed in this colum are the author's own and not necessarily those of Elon University.
By Tom Arcaro
Broad and powerful social and economic forces move us into the future, and it is our duty as responsible citizens both nationally and globally to put effort into understanding these forces. At stake is the very future of humanity, and even more immediately than we think. Science fiction may soon become science fact as the unstoppable force of technology meets the immovable object of capitalism.
In several recent public settings, perhaps most prominently in a speech to a gathering of U.S. governors, Space X founder and CEO Elon Musk has offered a serious cautionary note about artificial intelligence, commonly referred to as AI. In what may appear hyperbolic language, he calls AI “a fundamental existential risk for human civilization” and in a tweet, he stated “If you're not concerned about AI safety, you should be. Vastly more risk than North Korea.”
Musk is warning about what in my field of sociology we term “technological determinism.” Technological innovations can and frequently do have many and even massive unintended consequences, especially in the long term. Facebook – the social media platform on which you may indeed be reading this article - is a great example. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg could not have predicted that his small Harvard social experiment would eventually have more than 2 billion users, which amounts to more than a fourth of all humanity. If you discount those under 15, the figure is likely closer to one third. Staggering and astounding, that.
History offers many examples of technological determinism, and all have the same common characteristic: their creators had little idea of the long-term social and economic impacts they would have. One key exception to this characteristic is nuclear weapons. The Manhattan Project was sober and the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki shook the world. Most world leaders immediately recognized that this technology must be controlled at the highest levels.
One of the key refrains of those on the political right is that smaller government is better government, and markets that are as free as possible from governmental regulation and “meddling” will lead us to a better world. Though likely few on either the right or left would recognize his name, the words and writings of economist Friedrich Hayek shape our modern world. Indeed, Hayek counseled British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan as they pushed two of the world’s most dominant economies toward more privatization.
There is a name for this ideology, neoliberalism, and it has dominated mainstream economic politics for the last half century. Capitalism — it is the unmovable object — dominates our entire world and is only deepening in its influence on all aspects of our lives.
AI in particular represents the unstoppable force, but it is joined by other technologies like nanotechnology – building things from the atomic level - and a host of other innovations in various stages of research and development. The threat of AI, as outlined by Musk, is that without international nuclear weapon-like regulation and control, humanity risks becoming a flabby appendage of computers who will grow tired of our existence and eventully control or eliminate us.
The mind boggles, but if you combine AI and nanotechnology, the grim possibilities are indeed an existential threat. We could see a transformation from the anthropocene to the technolocene, a new era on Earth dominated not by the impact of humans, but rather by autonomous “machines” with a new kind of agency, one that extinguishes that of humans and breathes with a life of its own.
Put very simply, a free market means little or no regulation, and we are in dire need of just the opposite, aggressive governmental oversight and even regulation of at least some sectors, especially AI and nanotechnology. The key question is whether we – collectively as global citizens - have the political will to swim against the current of neoliberalism and counterintuitively demand more, albeit finely targeted, governmental intervention into the free market.
I am reminded of the adage that we tend to “put out the fires closest to us.” There is good logic to this, of course, since no one wants to get burnt. The governors that Musk spoke to likely have fires close to them needing immediate attention — Terry McAuliffe of Virgina, for one. If we take fail to take Musk seriously, the unstoppable force in the form of a molten lava techno-tsunami may overtake us all before we have a chance to respond.