Fighting the machine

After watching “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, I began to think more about how AI is impacting our lives and communities. While I don’t think it’s as simple as saying “Big Tech is evil,” I believe we are seeing the fruit of a laissez-faire policy around AI.

Digital technologies — and especially the internet — have given large companies the tools to deploy AI as a tool of psychological warfare. Unlike typical warfare, however, the goal is not destruction, but profit. This confuses our pro-business society, because profit is generally considered good.

Besides, in the past (we tell ourselves), people have been able to adapt and learn defenses against disinformation and seductive advertising — the solution is education, not regulation. (Because obviously “regulation” is a dirty word.)

Many years ago, everyone assumed that computers would never be able to beat humans at chess — a game that requires strategic thinking, and intuition. Computers with insight and creativity? Ridiculous.

Yet it turns out it’s possible to simulate some aspects of organic brains, and hone them to a peak of capability unmatched by messy biology. As a result, the number of people in the world who can beat a modern computer at chess is vanishingly small — perhaps only the top 10 in the world. The average person has zero chance.

The folk song “John Henry” tells the legend of a railroad construction worker — presumably the best of the best — who raced against a new-fangled steam-powered drill. In the end, John won the content — and then died of exhaustion and stress.

It’s the perfect metaphor for this unequal battle we find ourselves in. For that machine was not self-existing; there was a human wielding it — and an entire team of humans who designed and manufactured it. John Henry may have won a pyrrhic victory for humanity (huzzah!) but the next day, that team got busy designing the next generation of drills — and the next, and the next.

The idea of a rematch today — a human with a sledgehammer going toe-to-toe with a modern pneumatic jackhammer is quaint — perhaps good for a few laughs and a middling viral video on YouTube.

So why do we think we can match wits with the machines and win? Because in this contest, we won’t even know when we’ve lost.