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General News    H3'ed 7/22/21

Tomgram: John Feffer, Avoiding the Robot Apocalypse

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In my younger years, I had significant experience with futuristic worlds, sometimes of the grimmest sort. After all, I went to the moon with Jules Verne; saw London being destroyed with H.G. Wells; met my first robot with Isaac Asimov; faced the apocalyptic world of those aggressively poisonous plants, the Triffids, with John Wyndham; and met Big Brother with George Orwell. Yet, from pandemics to climate change, social media to the robotization of the planet that TomDispatch regular John Feffer describes today, nothing that I read once upon a time, no matter how futuristic, no matter how strange or apocalyptic, prepared me for the everyday world I now find myself in at age 77.

Back in the days of the pen and manual typewriter (remember, I've been an editor most of my life), if you had told me that, were I someday to mistakenly spell "life" as "kife," the spell-check program on my computer (yes, an actual computer!) would promptly underline it in red to let me know that I had goofed, I would never have believed you. I, edited incessantly by a machine? Not on your life, or perhaps I should say: not until it became part of my seldom-thought-about everyday life. Nor, of course, could you have convinced me that someday I would be able to carry my total communications system in my pocket and more or less talk to anyone I know anywhere, anytime. Had you suggested that, then, I would undoubtedly have laughed you out of the room.

And yet here I am, living in an online world I barely grasp in a version of everyday life that's left more youthful thoughts about the future in the dust. And now, Feffer has the nerve to fill me in on a future world to be in which, functionally, a robot may be carrying the equivalent of me around in its pocket or simply leave beings like me in a ditch somewhere along the way. Apocalypse then? I shudder to think. Read his piece and see if you don't shudder, too. Tom

Artificial Intelligence Wants You (and Your Job)
We'd Better Control Machines Before They Control Us


My wife and I were recently driving in Virginia, amazed yet again that the GPS technology on our phones could guide us through a thicket of highways, around road accidents, and toward our precise destination. The artificial intelligence (AI) behind the soothing voice telling us where to turn has replaced passenger-seat navigators, maps, even traffic updates on the radio. How on earth did we survive before this technology arrived in our lives? We survived, of course, but were quite literally lost some of the time.

My reverie was interrupted by a toll booth. It was empty, as were all the other booths at this particular toll plaza. Most cars zipped through with E-Z passes, as one automated device seamlessly communicated with another. Unfortunately, our rental car didn't have one.

So I prepared to pay by credit card, but the booth lacked a credit-card reader.

Okay, I thought, as I pulled out my wallet, I'll use cash to cover the $3.25.

As it happened, that booth took only coins and who drives around with 13 quarters in his or her pocket?

I would have liked to ask someone that very question, but I was, of course, surrounded by mute machines. So, I simply drove through the electronic stile, preparing myself for the bill that would arrive in the mail once that plaza's automated system photographed and traced our license plate.

In a thoroughly mundane fashion, I'd just experienced the age-old conflict between the limiting and liberating sides of technology. The arrowhead that can get you food for dinner might ultimately end up lodged in your own skull. The car that transports you to a beachside holiday contributes to the rising tides by way of carbon emissions and elevated temperatures that may someday wash away that very coastal gem of a place. The laptop computer that plugs you into the cyberworld also serves as the conduit through which hackers can steal your identity and zero out your bank account.

In the previous century, technology reached a true watershed moment when humans, harnessing the power of the atom, also acquired the capacity to destroy the entire planet. Now, thanks to AI, technology is hurtling us toward a new inflection point.

Science-fiction writers and technologists have long worried about a future in which robots, achieving sentience, take over the planet. The creation of a machine with human-like intelligence that could someday fool us into believing it's one of us has often been described, with no small measure of trepidation, as the "singularity." Respectable scientists like Stephen Hawking have argued that such a singularity will, in fact, mark the "end of the human race."

This will not be some impossibly remote event like the sun blowing up in a supernova several billion years from now. According to one poll, AI researchers reckon that there's at least a 50-50 chance that the singularity will occur by 2050. In other words, if pessimists like Hawking are right, it's odds on that robots will dispatch humanity before the climate crisis does.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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