The technology entrepreneur Elon Musk said with regard to artificial intelligence that “we are summoning the demon. […] I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.1 Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft also expressed concern at the manner in which advanced technology may adversely affect the labor market, saying “I don’t understand why some people are not concerned.2
These misgivings raise the important question – why is humanity developing a technology that may threaten its own existence, its own sources of employment and the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people? The answers are manifold. Firstly, each development is not in of itself perceived as a threat but rather, as an achievement in a specific field of knowledge such as the understanding of language, movement, face recognition etc. Only when all these developments are combined and unified does a terrifying picture begin to form.
Secondly, since the Age of Enlightenment, “science” and “technology” are synonyms for “progress”, the latter being overwhelmingly perceived as a positive thing. Not without reason is the word “progress” associated with “progression” or “advancement” for after all, who can seriously object to progress?
Finally, scientists, technologists and people in general, do not always understand that technology may get out of control. In practice, many technologies were developed with a certain objective in mind but were ultimately used for an entirely different purpose. The technology historian Lewis Mumford, wrote in his book ‘Technics and Civilization’ that the mechanical clock was invented in the 13th century by Benedictine monks who prayed seven times daily at fixed times, because they sought a way to know prayer times. However, the invention of the mechanical clock “escaped” the monastery and became the central means for enabling capitalism – designated working hours, working in assembly lines, manufacturing mass consumer products. As Mumford wrote, in the struggle between God and money, the latter prevailed.3 It was in this context that the media theorist Neil Postman wrote that, had the monks foreseen the future, they may have possibly preferred to remain with their sundial. Likewise, he conjectured, had Gutenberg known that his printing press would lead to the dismantling of the church, he may have preferred to use his machine to produce wine and not books.4
Technology evolves faster than the framework restraining it
Moreover, if we have learned anything from the history of technology, it is that it tends to develop faster than the cultural, ethical or legal frameworks that are supposed to restrain it. Only after the invention of nuclear weapons, any consideration was given to preventing its proliferation, only after the cloning of a sheep was accomplished, people started devoting efforts to prevent human cloning, and only after development of the cellphone did cultural norms consolidate regarding its public use. The problem with the developments in the field of artificial intelligence and algorithms is, that we may ultimately discover that the moment at which we begin to contend with their ethical and economic ramifications, is one moment too late.
If that is not enough, the new technologies may have significant psychological ramifications for the identity and the sense of self of us all. The most prominent economists and sociologists, including Karl Marx, have extensively expounded on the degree to which work is central to a person’s existence. For thousands of years we have been accustomed to drawing our satisfaction, self-identity and pride from the fruits of our labor, all of which are dealt a harsh blow with each successive technological revolution.
This was demonstrated by the industrial revolution when millions of laborers, who toiled in jobs that were handed down from father to son over the generations, were disinherited from their jobs and sent to work in a factory where they performed basic, exhausting and uninspiring labor. A century later, the factory workers discovered that they too could be replaced by machines and robots, and were consequently sent to work in service-based industries such as support, service and sales. Now, according to estimates of the best experts, there is a 99% probability that most of the telemarketing jobs will be transferred to computer programs, algorithms and robots within the next twenty years. The chance that checkout workers will lose their jobs stands at 97% and the probability that insurance agents will find themselves replaced is estimated at 92%.5
-  McFarland, Matt (2016, October 2104). “Elon Musk: ‘With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.’”. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2014/10/24/elon-musk-… ↩︎
-  Holley, Peter (2015, January 29). “Bill Gates on dangers of artificial intelligence: ‘I don’t understand why some people are not concerned’”. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2015/01/28/bill-gates-… ↩︎
-  Mumford, Lewis. (1964). Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company. P. 15. ↩︎
-  Postman, Neil. (2003) Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Tel Aviv, Sifriat HaPoalim, P. 15. (Heb.)
-  The probability that your job will be replaced by a machine can be seen here: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/05/21/408234543/will-your-job-be… ↩︎