As I reported last year, there’s been a lot of talk about a singularity in the last decade. That’s the point when machine intelligence (AI) exceeds human intelligence and begins to rule humanity and eventually the entire universe.
It’s a scary proposition to be sure, but we can rest easy on that front, because it’s not going to happen.
The futurists assume there’s a bridge between narrow applications of AI and the general intelligence humans possess. But no such bridge exists. As Erik J. Larson explains in his book The Myth of Artificial Intelligence, we’re not even on the right road to such a bridge.
You can also take George Gilder’s word for it. One of the most influential thinkers on technology and economics in the last 40 years thinks the idea of a singularity where AI usurps human minds is delusional.
In his 2020 book on the subject, Gaming AI: Why AI Can’t Think But Can Transform Jobs, Gilder shows that despite recent impressive successes in games like Go, StarCraft II, and even poker, artificial intelligence is “just the next step in computer science.” As he demonstrates, “real intelligence is not a game.”
In carefully defined tasks, AI can perform with tremendous speed and efficiency, allowing it to find pathways to success in things like games, data synthesis, and even the biological puzzle of protein folding. But it doesn’t begin to threaten human minds.
While this is good news for humanity, we shouldn’t be too quick to breathe a sigh of relief yet. AI could still get the better of us a different way: if we give it permission to do our thinking for us.
Remember the humans in the Disney Pixar film WALL-E? Cruising through space in the comfort of their high-tech armchairs, they rely on AI and bots to eat, drink, communicate, learn and entertain themselves. They have everything they need to be “happy” but have lost the ability even to walk for themselves.
Even more crucially, they have also given up the practice of thinking for themselves. AI makes the decisions for them — what meal to eat, what hairstyle to get, what color of outfit to wear.
They are so conditioned to their lifestyle that merely the suggestion of a new choice on the screens around them is enough to make them respond to it en masse.
The humans in WALL-E’s dystopian vision of the future haven’t been conquered by a hostile AI that has surpassed human intelligence. But they are still a vanquished people. They have happily handed the reins of their lives over to machine intelligence in favor of the comfort, convenience and perceived security it brings them.
What about us? The WALL-E example may seem a bit far-fetched, but let’s look at where we are now. We’re getting cozy with digital assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Home, trusting the AI behind those platforms with answers to questions, weather info, and control of our home appliances. We’re also growing more comfortable speaking with AI on customer service calls.
We can’t go very long without our smartphones. Much of our daily thinking is getting guided by apps and algorithms. They manage our habits, decide whose posts we see, suggest entertainment, and connect with all our other smart gadgets.
We use bluetooth trackers so we never lose our valuables and fitness trackers to formalize our exercise plans. Instead of paper maps, we plug destinations into GPS and let AI tell us where to go. We’re getting used to AI-driven contactless interactions, like Uber rides and restaurant delivery systems.
In China, AI is being harnessed to maintain a vast social credit system to reward and punish citizens for their everyday choices.
Where are we headed with all this? Will we be sitting in the metaverse 20 or 50 years from now, with AI and bots tending to our every need while we let our physical lives slip by? If we don’t check ourselves, we might.
Computers work to the extent that they serve human minds, says Gilder. We determine our future relationship with artificial intelligence. Either we continue to safeguard human thinking while using AI to enhance human capability, or we buy into the materialist superstition that AI can give us the utopian freedom we deserve and jump into our high-tech armchairs.