When the Machines Might not Win

I was reading about how AI is now alleged to be able to recognise human speech better than other humans and then I had two thoughts as usual when I read these sorts of things.

The first is the usual one which is along the lines of, “Oh no, it’s happening way quicker than we ever imagined, our robot overlords are already here to swallow our souls.” This is then followed by overwhelming existential dread, quick acquiescence, a shrug and finally making myself a sandwich.

The second thought was how dumb we as a species typically are and how there’s a good chance none of it will ever be that scary. There is this idea of “homo economicus” and how we as humans always do the rational, economical and efficient thing. As anyone with a child, living in the UK in 2016 or who’s ever lived with other humans knows, this is generally bullshit.

We are not driven by these invisible hands and pure, god-like markets to do the most efficient things. We are driven by laziness and spite more than efficiency. Yes, the reason your neighbour refuses to trim those hedges and the reason your uncle won’t buy the better value floor cleaner is out of spite, anger and lack of wanting to do much of anything that would require changing anything in our lives. These are the things that drive us. No rational, economic incentive in the world can make Uncle George buy that floor cleaner which he believes to profit the Bilderburg Group and/or their lizard alien masters.

Now, let’s take this one step further and think about vaccines. If you would have asked someone not 100 years ago, but as little as 20 to 30 years ago they would have assumed that more vaccination would make rampant and life threatening disease less and less of a problem. As the medical technology would progress, obviously we would have more solutions that of course people would be lining up to use. If you would have asked that same person if the modern equivalent to a medieval plague shot across the world in less than a month what would be the solution, they would point incredulously at vaccines as the obvious answer. It was clearly the rational, technical as well as economical solution that best fit. However, as we can see, there are a lot of people not following what would have otherwise be the preordained march of technology and progress.

Now imagine all this AI technology is the same. Imagine we just didn’t do anything with it because reasons. Because people aren’t sure. Or because your neighbour just doesn’t know despite all the evidence saying it’s clearly the way forward. Because a desparate politician says so. Because reasons. The thing we really need to understand is that a technology of efficiency doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be used or become standard by any means. We, the trite, spiteful little primates we are, don’t allow things to happen always because it’s the more efficient way, or makes sense, or even if it’s the most profitable way. If you need another US-centric example, look at the active rejection of the metric system.

As we all know but love to forget, just as we do our lessons from the past, the future is not linear, history is. We never learn and history and it’s malcontents come to bite us in our respective and collective asses century after century. AI will likely at once not be sentient from the machines with Austrian accents sent from the future, just as it won’t be as disappointing as Clippy. Chances are AI will slot somewhere in the middle and be deservedly mediocre in all respects. Technology doesn’t march on without people, and believe it or not, we still for the time being can decide for ourselves.

Here is a stock picture (I think) of a robot which I was led to believe at some point will completely make the point of this article hit home like crazy. I’m not sure that it does now that I look at it, but despite being not exactly a fan of manga in general, I grew up on Robotech and hung out with heaps of people who would draw endless versions of these things while studying industrial design. Also, believe it or not, it’s hard to find free to use pictures of not only Terminator but cool AND scary robots in general. This was supposed to be scary, remember that. Imagine that it was black and red, and had glowing eyes, and maybe dripping in gore or something.