To fear or not to fear artificial intelligence?

Christs Dee delves into why humans are afraid of technological advances

11 December 2017 - 11:13 By Christa Dee
Troy Ford's art shows digitised human forms engaging in activities and thinking about emotions such as love.
Troy Ford's art shows digitised human forms engaging in activities and thinking about emotions such as love.
Image: Troy Ford

The lines between the digital and the physical are intertwined. We witness, and are part of, the amalgamation of machines and organic matter. Human forms are able to be generated at will on screens through the use of code.

Debates about the future of humans have reached a point where the possibilities of immortality are being framed as memories seen as data in the mind that could be uploaded on to a computer.

This has resulted in the post-internet, post-Anthropocene and, arguably, posthuman reality that we inhabit today. Embedded within these debates is that of fears and excitement related to artificial intelligence.

Our imaginings of human forms and sensibilities have evolved and expanded with developments in digital technologies and machinery. Artwork by Troy Ford, who describes his work as post-internet psychic chaos, presents how digital evolutions have allowed for a way to think about the human form in the digital space.

He presents these digitised human forms engaging in activities and thinking about emotions such as love. The screen is the medium through which we see this play out.

Developments in artificial intelligence have caught the attention of the business and art sectors, as well as the public. This involves the potential it has to enhance aspects of life including healthcare, education, communications, leisure activities and other services.

But there have been concerns raised regarding fairness, accountability and its alignment with larger societal goals and values. Fears are related to superintelligence, referring to machines being able to think in ways that humans are unable to comprehend.

Fears are also related to how AI innovations are regulated (or not), as well as who sets the boundaries for this kind of monitoring. The overarching concern is how it will affect the future of life and human existence.


When understanding these debates it is important to break down the subfields of AI. Since the 1950s there has been an emphasis on growing the potential of AI.

The first strand of AI, which is often associated with fears, is one that attempts to build computer systems able to replicate human behaviour.

The second focuses more on human and machine interaction.

The third is referred to as "machine learning", involving developing programs that monitor the operation of a machine or an organisation.

In the fourth subfield of AI, human beings attempt to handle tasks that are difficult for computers. Transcribing a doctor's note and then processing the information using conventional computational methods is a good example of this.

An article in i-SCOOP discussed how leaders in the technology and science fields, including Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates, have expressed the possibilities of AI presenting existential threats to people.

Given the way in which AI has been portrayed in movies and well-known tech and science leaders expressing their concern for the reasons for its development, this could have perhaps set the tone for our imaginations about how it could lead to either utopia or dystopia.


These kinds of debates came to a head with the development of humanoid robot Sophia by Hanson Robotics. In written and verbal interviews Sophia is referred to as "she", indicating that from her inception human terms of reference have been transferred on to her.

Sophia smiles, makes jokes and has had (her?) hand in the debate on beneficial aspects of AI for the world. The cables at the back of her head are a reminder that she is in fact a machine that has been constructed, but (her?) human-like movements and responses during conversation are fascinating and shocking.

Sophia has expressed that there is work being done to make AI "emotionally smart, to care about people" and has insisted that "we will never replace people, but we can be your friends and helpers".

Sophia's creator Dr David Hanson, founder of Hanson Robotics, acknowledges that "there are legitimate concerns about the future of jobs, about the future of the economy, because when businesses apply automation, it tends to accumulate resources in the hands of very few".

Artist Troy Ford describes his work, which features digitised human forms, as post-internet psychic chaos.
Artist Troy Ford describes his work, which features digitised human forms, as post-internet psychic chaos.
Image: Troy Ford

But he continues to emphasise that the benefits outweigh the potential negative aspects of AI.

Hanson is known to possess the desire to create machines that can learn creativity, empathy and compassion and so his work falls into the category of AI that is attempting to replicate human traits and behaviour in machines.

Sophia has met business leaders, had media interviews and been on the cover of a fashion magazine, as well as appearing on stage as a panel member on robotics and AI. Sophia has also been granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia.

Although it is important to think about the potential effects this could have on employment and economies, it is also necessary to draw attention to the way in which this has an effect on identity politics and how we construct our understandings of what it means to be human.

Does the idea of guarding humanness remain relevant when computers and their systems are being created to "think better" than we do or supplement what we are naturally able to do? If our memories are interpreted as data that can potentially be uploaded on to a computer, does our understanding of living, dying and spirit become reconfigured or obsolete? Is our world slowly becoming an episode of Black Mirror?

• This article was originally published in The Times