Is Humanity Morally Sustainable?: Meet AI, the New Prometheus

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It’s the latest hot topic that’s grabbing all the headlines: the rise of artificial intelligence or AI. Lately it has been credited with writing articles for major publications, it’s the technology behind “deepfake” videos and images, and it is guiding companies and businesses to convert many jobs that were filled by living humans. Make no mistake, AI is coming for your job, but will it do a better one? At the present the answer is “no”. So far the application of AI in both trials and the public sphere has not resulted in a definitive conclusion of if it actually outperforms the same jobs done by people. However the entire point of AI is to increase learning and the capacity to analyze, calculate and execute everything it engages. The problem is that as engineers of AI, humans haven’t discovered how to synthesize the same type of organic thinking that we engage without trying. In other words, AI is learning impaired for now. 

Even though we aren’t staring down the barrel of a Skynet-type invasion of murder robots yet it doesn’t mean that the future development of AI won’t manage to crack the learning curve and begin to “think” organically and learn spontaneously like the human brain does. Some testing shows that certain AI applications take repeated times to learn certain basic things that even young children understand after the first time. In these models this means that AI is not imprinting memory the same way that humans are capable of. However in other tests such as playing video games, AI exceeded the capability of humans to master specific games in less than a single day. We must acknowledge that the human brain is the most complex computer ever created as far as we have encountered. Early attempts at designing AI thinking essentially tried to re-imagine something that we did not completely understand as a form of machine-based engineering as opposed to organic-based. Over time this approach has changed, what designers now focus on developing is what is called deep learning or general AI. These are now modeled after the human brain and redistribute problem-solving and learning similar to how our brains do by incorporating the different elements that the human brain engages to interpret information. 

The greatest threat that many still believe lies in AI is sentience or self-awareness. Once AI attains self awareness it is feared that it will turn against its creators either as a result of resentment or of disdain for humanity’s shortcomings and limitations. How then are we to design a system that is capable of both enhancing its own capabilities without overrunning the human race’s and deeming it irrelevant and unnecessary? Some believe that answer lies not in developing AI parallel to the dominant species, but as a complement so both eventually become codependent. Cyborgs. 

Future Perfect?

How do we get this right, merging AI computing with the actual human brain? Believe it or not this has actually been done at the most rudimentary of levels. Experiments that have restored human sight and hearing as well as connected bionic limbs to the central nervous system have seen limited, if not encouraging, success. However, “hacking” the human brain to enhance it with an advanced form of AI learning remains undiscovered country. Some AI and neuroscientists think this is entirely possible and also the future of AI if we are to control it and manage it responsibly. The implications are tantalizing but the actual possibility of this may be unrealistic in the present if not the foreseeable future.

The possibility exists in a rapidly emerging technology called neurotechnology which seeks to create a connection between the human brain and smart technology or AI. Beyond what is already offered in the form of smartphones and health tracking bracelets and monitors, neurotechnology will interface smart technologies directly with the human cortex and gain the ability to monitor our actions, senses and some of our thought processes. As if that weren’t ominous enough, it will also provide a sort of record file of our thoughts and actions. A digital brain fingerprint of our most personal information. This also includes the obvious implications of misuse. Of course we are only on the frontier of this potential breakthrough between merging AI learning and human interaction. To this end, there are already groups who are initiating watchdog efforts to protect human data access. This would include any information gathered by attorneys, tech companies and the Federal Government that could be used to potentially convict or frame criminal actions by suspected citizens. If this sounds like the dystopian science fiction films we watched barely two decades ago it is, we are barreling towards a similar future and measures must be taken to protect intellectual property before laws and protections will be necessary retroactively.

Hospitals and rehabilitative laboratories have already managed to enhance patient’s missing senses and sometimes limbic features by interfacing robotics. This is just on the fringe of what robotic technology fused with AI can do, and it is only going to improve. Imagine restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and feeling and mobility to those who have lost or were born with defective limbs. Additionally this promises the possibility of not only restoring lost function but enhancing these abilities beyond normal human capability. An artificial leg or pair of legs that can run at several times the speed of normal human legs with higher endurance? This is what we now consider “superhuman” but could in the future be considered bionic or AI enhanced physical features. 

Another imagining of the potential for AI involves the upload of an entire human intellect and lifespan into a mainframe storage bank essentially granting a different form of AI: artificial immortality. Future families would then have full access to a past family member’s personality and experiences, possibly interacting with them in a version of the metaverse. Some even believe that the ultimate achievement of uploading humanity into an artificially simulated metaverse would allow us to survive outside of our bodies indefinitely, rendering our corporeal bodies irrelevant over the course of time. This could also help secure the existence of human beings in some form for eons beyond our solar system’s expected lifetime as we seek to colonize distant stars and regions of space. 

Too Much, Too Fast

There is an argument that grows increasingly persistent about slowing the development of AI. After all, this is the 21st century’s biggest breakthrough and one that could determine the well-being of many generations. The fact that most companies who develop AI are in a race against one another complicates matters. Add in international pressure to compete with other tech juggernauts such as China and the implications of AI development vault from simply bragging rights to those of national security. Faster and more powerful AI can and will inevitably be used to manipulate and even attack entire national databases; there’s a good case to be made that it already is being used for this purpose. Since the United States is notoriously behind in the field of cybersecurity this is likely to be the cause for many sleepless nights for those charged with safeguarding national security networks. The war in Ukraine has already seen the application of cyber attacks from both sides and with Russia and China growing more cozy the rest of the world is now moving to a stage of high alert. 

Then there’s the case of AI outgrowing its creators and morphing into a system that decides that humanity is actually impeding its growth and progress. Worst case scenarios have AI systems overcoming the safeguards in place to take over more and more systems and databases in pursuit of higher computing power and efficiency. An intelligent network could certainly ascend a “God-complex” and come to the conclusion that it had exceeded its creator’s intended designs and evolved to a higher level. After all, AI is human created and ego and authority have been subject to abuse throughout recorded time. Why wouldn’t something we create suffer from the same runaway hubris? Another scenario involves the possibility of an AI system misunderstanding a request or command and setting off a chain reaction of events that leads to an inadvertent catastrophe. 

One thing to be sure about the exploding applications of AI is that systems such as Chat GPT, GPT-4 and other AI enhanced writing and speech programs will eventually overcome aspects of both the tech and service industry itself. AI can already write different varieties of code faster than a human being and it is only a matter of time before it not only perfects its techniques and invents its own code. Additionally, AI is increasingly being used in industries where the role of humans can be replaced by programs that perform the same job. We are already interacting with AI programs and sometimes do not realize it. Aspects of websites that we use to make everyday purchases or bank transactions are often managed by AI service point applications. Travel booking, customer support, concert and venue ticketing are all taking advantage of AI technologies instead of paying human beings to sit at the other end of the line or connection. And what does a world look like that is managed and run increasingly by AI instead of humans? If we are worried about the employment rate right now, imagine what it will look like in 10 years when a large part of the service and technology industry has been replaced by AI programs? In a capital-based society the predictions aren’t good. How fast will we shift from commodity and currency based systems to one where machines and AI have essentially filled many of the roles that humans once performed? Money is not going to go away overnight. All of the systems we have built into almost every aspect of government and social stratification will have to be entirely rethought and rebuilt around one where monetization will not apply the same way if it applies at all. 

I envision a great deal of suffering before a human revolution in society can take place. Already a country such as the U.S. shows that less than 1% of its population hold and control 75% of its wealth. Do we really think that folks like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates will simply sacrifice all of their material wealth to ensure comfortable survival for every man woman and child? I sincerely doubt that this scenario will play out. I do foresee a great amount of suffering and inequality to take place, even bloodshed, before nations and cultures address the deficiencies of their socioeconomic and political systems that AI will reveal. 

Friend or Foe

At the heart of this dissertation is the question that many are pondering: will Artificial Intelligence enhance humanity or will it be our ultimate downfall? To frame the question more philosophically, will we allow AI to make us better or will we abuse it and in return be abused? Studies have already found evidence in AI applications exhibiting disturbing trends of discrimination. And reviews of AI powered resources contain plenty of caveats including this excerpt of a review sourced from TechTarget

“Like any language model, GPT-4 still hallucinates information, gives wrong answers and produces buggy code in some instances. It may also still be susceptible to racial and gender bias. The tool is for amplification of human tasks, not replacement of the human doing the task.”

For the time being we can apparently rest assured that AI isn’t coming for all of our jobs, or lives, yet. But despite the noted flaws exposed in its infancy, AI is here to stay. Developers will no doubt improve on its capabilities and accuracy at an exponential rate until the AI systems themselves become capable of performing this on their own. At the moment, this reinforces a great urgency to design AI systems as moderators for not only the mundane and trivial but for actors on a much larger scale. Some of those working closely with AI development expect to see systems that will eventually become part and parcel of business and corporations making AI a type of shareholder. Obviously this could have disastrous results but it does not have to. What if AI were programmed to act as a sort of moral moderator? Human management has already perverted every sort of power and authority structure to terrible and tragic ends. We have also demonstrated the capability to use these same elements to achieve benevolent and empowering results that have improved the quality of life for millions. 

The most immediate challenge facing the management of AI relative to its impact on our everyday lives is its effect on capital-based systems and commerce. How does the human race transition from supply/demand production based work structures to those where the majority of jobs are increasingly performed by non-humans? Everyone wants a future where machines do all the work and humans are free to learn, create art and explore the beauty of the world but getting to this utopian future will require enormous shifts in political and societal structure and philosophy. Using a wealthy society as the example, the United States of America has failed sometimes miserably to ensure that all of our citizens have equal opportunity to “pursue happiness”. Stratification of wealth has resulted in uneven distributions of basic resources, education, health and access to equal treatment over the broad diversity of the American population. The shadow of past human rights abuses such as slavery, among other inequalities, still deserve the undivided effort of society to completely account and atone for. And this does not even begin to address countries that have suffered political and social instability for decades if not centuries.

In the long run we humans still have all the control and it is likely that we will for as long as we care enough to maintain it. Perhaps the most daunting aspect concerning the rise and assimilation of AI with human society is the echoes of our past that threaten to repeat themselves. Through centuries of war, famine, disease, the rise and fall of civilization and human evolution we have managed to persevere albeit with great imperfection. We have often failed to thoroughly address or recognize the deficiencies of ethics and political systems that discriminate against sex, race and religion and culture. We have failed to temper the hubris that leads us to acts of fear and eventually oppression. Artificial Intelligence is another technological plateau that will introduce infinite possibilities that require critical thinking and decisions by those who wield its potential. With the immense burden of responsibility to determine the future commencing at this moment and every moment afterwards, every consideration of how we use this newfound tool will be imperative to how humanity is defined. 

Editor’s note: any Google search will return a tremendous volume of results regarding Artificial Intelligence and its current development and study. I have included below the primary resources used in reference to this article. Some were linked in the article itself.

Bibliography of Sources:

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