The real question about AI: Will it survive us humans?

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How many electronic devices, regardless of form or function, have you owned in, say, the past five years? Are they still functional? What drawer, crawlspace, or dump are they in now? I purchased my home PC back in 2004, and although I’ve replaced the monitor (once), the printer (twice), and recently the mouse, the guts are still good.

Although I’m a bit of a Luddite, I do try to follow tech issues, such as artificial intelligence, or AI. While reading and ruminating about AI, a name from the past popped up: John von Neumann, one of the 20th century’s greatest mathematicians, physicists and computing pioneers.

When I encountered his name, it was in relation to a quote attributed to him: “Can we survive technology?” As it turns out, the quote is the title of an essay von Neumann wrote in 1955. In the essay, Von Neumann looks ahead to 1980 to discuss the future relationship between human beings and technology, such as the growth of automation via early computing devices; the production of energy via nuclear power; and the heating of the planet due to human industrial activity (today’s global warming).

The main thrust of his essay — the guts — deals with nuclear weapons. Von Neumann argues that as nations expanded geographically and grew technologically from the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the world became smaller and politically unstable, increasing the risk of military conflict. By 1955. that possibly meant a nuclear war.

The essay ends on a darkly ironic note, as von Neumann acknowledges that technology and civilization itself are inseparable. Yet he wonders, still thinking of the threat of nuclear war, whether we will survive.

Von Neumann might have been a mathematical genius, and a polymath to boot, but I would argue that he got it all wrong. The question should be: “Can technology survive us?”

Over the years, I’ve known several people who went through PCs, laptops, and printers as if they were pairs of cheap shoes. And as for smartphones, don’t make me laugh. Whenever a new model comes out, too many people rush to replace their old phones, whether they need to or not.

Despite the fact that we love technology, we abuse it, and then we dump it, and I don’t see any reason why we won’t treat AI the same way. Here, I need to move from the realm of science and von Neumann, to the realm of science fiction and Steven Spielberg.

I never took Spielberg seriously as a filmmaker, and so I didn’t see his “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” when it came out, but did years later on DVD, and again recently. While there are aspects of that film’s world that I find to be goofy-stupid (for instance, where did the androids get their power, their “juice,” to operate?), there are scenes where Spielberg got it right regarding AI.

Think of the scene where David, the android child abandoned by his human mother, watches while a garbage truck drops a load of broken technology — androids included — at a secluded dump. After the truck leaves, damaged but still functional androids descend on the dump in an attempt to find replacement parts.

Consider subsequent scenes when the androids attempt to flee humans who are hunting them down in order to destroy them in horrific ways to entertain technology-hating humans. All in all, the androids feared us, not the other way around.

What will happen then with AI? It will be further developed and refined (it often makes mistakes, or “hallucinations”), and it will find its uses. Will it take away jobs from humans? Probably.

Assuming the tech-heads can get them up and running, will AI-enabled androids seek to control all human activity, if not destroy us? Of course not, sci-fi aficionados. Like all technology, we humans created AI and we can control it. We have more of a chance of being destroyed in a nuclear war, as von Neumann feared, than by AI, no matter what form it takes.

Besides, as AI-enabled androids are produced and they learn more about us, like their counterparts on film they’ll learn to fear us and our nuked-up, politically and economically unstable world. Instead of dominating us, they’ll flee from us in an attempt to survive.

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