If we weren’t so busy fussing about shifts in geopolitical climates and trying to stay on top of every move that the current U.S. administration is making we might be having completely different conversations about how the world is changing right under our noses.
Way back in the day there was this completely fantastic, absurd show about a guy who went around solving crimes with a self-driving car that could talk to him. (KITT, you were always a loyal companion.)
Seriously, people, a self-driving car. How much more ludicrous can you get?
Almost as ludicrous as a search engine company actually making one. Putting such power as driving a car completely into the hands of a machine is unnerving.
If I have my childhood facts straight, the original Westworld movie found its way onto TV one night, leading my parents to record it on Betamax, which subsequently led me to watch it—the first movie to literally give me nightmares.
In the film, robots man an amusement park with all the thrills of the Wild West. Well, not all of them—at least, not until a computer malfunction sets them off on a murderous rampage. The eerie trailer ends with the promise, “Nothing can possibly go wrong… go wrong… go wrong…” That off-kilter repetition became part of my family’s vocabulary. Nothing can go wrong… can go wrong… can go wrong…
Rogue robots of the Wild West make for terrifying brain candy.
Stack up any number of AI-themed movies and a disquieting technophobia can be seen just beneath the surface of our glibly tech-addicted society.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Generally speaking, I am not a technophobe. But I am a committed anthrophobe. That is to say, it’s not the technology I’m afraid of it’s the people who program it and the people who wield it.
This winter I saw two articles the same week.
First, there was the demonstration of a drone swarm by the Department of Defense. Over a hundred drones work together to complete a task. They are not each programmed for their own individual role. The swarm is given a task and the drones work together to do it. There is no leader. There are no followers. Just a single mission. If one falls out, others do its work.
<sarcasm font> The great news about this new technology is that the drones are inexpensive and small! They can go anywhere! And why not deploy the cheap option? </sarcasm font>
The day before the DoD went public with its drone swarm, The Guardian ran an article with this headline: “America Dropped 26,171 Bombs in 2016.”
The juxtaposition of these two stories underscores my phobia. I’m not scared of the technology, I’m scared of what the humans will do when they get their hands on it. And I don’t mean “the bad guys over there.” I mean us. Here.
Power In the Hands of Power
It is the rare human being who can handle power well. It is almost as though there are two kinds of people in the world: people who have generous, selfless visions for the world and giving themselves to projects leading to the world’s greater flourishing, and people who are good at rising to positions of power and influence.
Why are Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. such striking figures in the story of the twentieth century, and of humanity? In part, it seems, because someone with world-changing leadership gifts who deploys that strength for something other than accumulation of power over other people, is a once-in-a-lifetime figure.
When we are talking about technology it is tempting to throw up our hands and blame the machines. Seth Godin had an excellent, sane blog post last month in which we simply asked, “Where did the algorithm come from?”
At some point, humans are making the decisions that are filling our news feeds with only like-minded stories, deepening our rifts and making the world a more siloed and therefore dangerous place. That’s not the intelligence of The Facebook. That’s the designers and coders and decision-makers in Palo Alto.
Somewhere there is human power. Its deployment is what scares me. Who can be trusted to wield it well?