Be warned: Artificial Intelligence is NOT your friend

The biggest threat? Companies like Google and Facebook merging with AI to become our digital overlords

03 February 2019 - 00:05
Make smart like Elon Musk and hitch a ride to Mars before AI takes over.
Make smart like Elon Musk and hitch a ride to Mars before AI takes over.
Image: 123RF

Once upon a time, probably in the '80s, a group of boys and a couple of girls were chilling in a forest. Most of them wore glasses and looked like cast members of the Big Bang Theory but there were some pretty ones in there too. Anyway, there came a day when they noticed that global weather patterns were getting all wonky and so they got on their loudspeakers and cried "Wolf!" (presumably the word for climate change in their language) to the nearby village.

A couple of villagers looked up but most were too busy sipping their delicious dinosaur-juice lattés to bother. This went on for some time. Every year the weather would get wonkier, the Big Bang Theorists would shout louder and more fossil fuel frappachinos would be chugged.

Eventually the weather got so wonky that only the most strung-out crude-oil junkies denied they had a problem. So the villagers ran up to the forest to ask the theorists what they could do to fix it. It was too late though. The black gold was almost finished, the world was on fire and the boffins had moved to Mars.

This is not a fable warning against the dangers of climate change. That ship has sailed. Instead, it's a friendly reminder that just because something is tasty and convenient, it doesn't mean we should pay it no mind. Cue Artificial Intelligence, or AI.

A few weeks ago social media decided to do the 10-year challenge, the basic premise being that you would post two pictures of yourself 10 years apart and add a caption about growth or whatever. Some eagle-eyed boffins were a little sceptical, suspecting that this was just another way for Facebook & Co to improve their facial-recognition software.

Whether or not you believe that is irrelevant because the debate highlighted just how much the machines know about us. Current AI works by collecting massive amounts of data and putting it towards whatever it's been programmed for, and we merrily hand over this data every time we post.

We merrily hand over data about ourselves every times we post on social media

Facebook knows how you think, what triggers you, what you used to think, when your mind changed, who your friends are and who your real friends are. Your phone knows how many steps you take, how often you pick it up and where you are at any given time. It knows what distracts you and what is likely to distract you for longer.

There are reams of data on what titillates you, what turns you off and how well/poorly you spend your money.

Have you noticed that sometimes you will spend a lot of time talking about something - only for an advert for that item to pop up on your feed? The machines already know everything they need to know about you and all that information is sitting with large corporations.

If capitalist history has taught us anything, it is that large corporations never have and never will have the interests of the common man at heart. The big bad evil Schwarzenegger-style AI we think of is not our biggest problem. Our biggest problem is Google and friends merging with AI to become our digital overlords.

AI is a hefty chunk of the reason we are so depressed and anxious

Much like climate change, there is the idea that the dangers of AI are in some far-distant future and we can fix it when we get there. They're not. AI is a hefty chunk of the reason we are so depressed and anxious. It played a powerful role in electing Donald Trump. It knows everything about us.

All that and it is still in its infancy. Obviously it has some wonderfully positive benefits, but so did fossil fuel. The benefits of oil were so great that we ignored the long-term dangers and now we're almost out of polar bears, Amsterdam is drowning and Cape Town runs out of water like journalists run out of money in January.

Roll your eyes all you want, but tech billionaire Elon Musk, along with others, warned us about AI, and now he's building a boat to Mars.