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OUR MASTERS, SLAVES, OR PARTNERS?

JOHN MARKOFF

Senior writer, science section, New York Times; author, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground Between Humans and Robots

Hegel wrote that in the relationship between master and slave, both are dehumanized. That insight touched a wide range of thinkers, from Marx to Buber, and today it’s worth remembering.

While there’s no evidence that the world is on the cusp of machines that think in a human sense, there’s also little question that in an Internet-connected world, artificial intelligence will soon imitate much of what humans do, both physically and intellectually. So how will we relate to our ever more talented simulacrums?

We’ve already begun to spend a significant fraction of our waking hours either interacting with other humans through the prism of computers and computer networks or directly interacting with humanlike machines, either in fantasy and video games or in a plethora of computerized assistance systems ranging from so-called FAQ bots, which offer textual responses to typed questions, to the humanlike interactions of software avatars. Will these AI avatars be our slaves, our assistants, our colleagues, or some mixture of all three? Or, more ominously, will they become our masters?

The very notion of thinking about robots and artificial intelligences in terms of social relationships may initially seem implausible. However, given that we tend to anthropomorphize our machines even when they have minimal powers, it will be an undeniable reality as they become autonomous. Conversational computers are emerging that seem all too human. Consequently, the goal of the designers of future robots should be to create colleagues rather than servants. The design goal should be to build a program that acts as a musical accompanist rather than a slave.

If we fail, history offers a disturbing precedent. Building future intelligent “assistants” might only recapitulate the problem the Romans faced in letting their Greek slaves do their thinking for them. Before long, those in power were unable to think independently.

Perhaps we’ve already begun to slip down a similar slope. For example, there’s growing evidence that reliance on GPS for directions and for correction of navigational errors hinders our ability to remember and reason spatially—generally useful survival skills.

That hints at a second great challenge: the risk of ceding individual control over everyday decisions to a cluster of ever more sophisticated algorithms.

For today’s younger generation, the world has been turned upside down. Rather than deploying an automaton to free them to think big thoughts, have close relationships, and exercise their individuality, creativity, and freedom, they look to their smartphones for guidance. What began as Internet technologies enabling their users to share preferences efficiently has become a growing array of data-hungry algorithms that make decisions for us.

Now the Internet seamlessly serves up life directions. These might be little things, like what’s the best nearby place for Korean barbecue, based on the Internet’s increasingly complete understanding of your individual wants and needs, or big things, like an Internet service arranging your marriage. Not just the food, gifts, and flowers but your partner too.

The lesson is that the software engineers, AI researchers, roboticists, and hackers who design these future systems have the power to reshape society.

Nearly a century ago, Thorstein Veblen wrote an influential critique of the early twentieth-century industrial world, The Engineers and the Price System. Because of the power and influence of industrial technology, he believed that political power would flow to engineers, whose deep knowledge of technology would be transformed into control of the emerging industrial economy. It certainly didn’t work out that way. Veblen was speaking to the Progressive Era, looking for a middle ground between Marxism and capitalism. Perhaps his timing was off, but his basic point, as echoed some thirty years later at the dawn of the computer era by Norbert Wiener, may yet be proved correct.

Perhaps Veblen wasn’t wrong, merely premature. Today, the engineers who design the artificial-intelligence-based programs and robots have a tremendous influence over how we use them. As computer systems are woven more deeply into the fabric of everyday life, the tension between intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence becomes increasingly visible.

At the dawn of the computing age, Wiener had a clear sense of the significance of the relationship between humans and smart machines. He saw the benefits of automation in eliminating human drudgery, but he also clearly saw the possibility of the subjugation of humanity. The intervening decades have only sharpened the dichotomy he first identified.

This is about us, about humans and the kind of world we’ll create. It’s not about the machines, no matter how brilliant they become.

I, for one, will welcome neither our robot overlords nor our robot slaves.

 
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