We can’t afford to let artificial intelligence loose on society


When people meet, almost the first question is ‘What do you do?  The answer establishes status and assists in deciding if there are common interests.

Work gives us a purpose, a feeling of well-being and an income to support our lifestyles and families. 

The rapid growth of artificial intelligence, automation and robotics poses a threat to employment whether we are surgeons, doctors, lawyers, accountants, unskilled labourers or in creative professions.  

Losing one’s job and being made redundant is one of the prime causes of mental breakdown as people cease motivation and feel purposeless.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is predicted to eliminate 30 per cent of jobs in the next few years and this number will grow over the following decades. BT, for example are reported to be planning to let go 50,000 workers. According to the Bank of England virtually 50 per cent of jobs are threatened by AI and by robots. Because of technological advances, this has been progressing for many decades.

As an example, in the UK, the number of bank branches fell from 17,840 in 1990 to less than half that number by the end of 2015. This is purported by bank executives to provide better service for their customers, when the reality is that its purpose is to increase profits, shareholder dividends and stock market value.

We are told that the growth of AI will benefit the human race and undoubtedly there have been many instances when this has been true, particularly in the medical field. 

Even so, many of us are sceptical about the benefit when, for instance, we have a problem and need to ‘phone our utility suppliers. We are faced with sometimes a half an hour or more wait, while listening to ‘Greensleeves’ and repeatedly being told that ‘your call is important to us’. When eventually we get to speak to a real person, they are often in India, speak with an accent we have difficulty in understanding and, after being asked to explain our problem, are then told they will have to pass us on to someone else who can help! 

In their quest for increased profits, AI allows companies to so reduce their staff that they are unable to give their customers the service they had in the past. Yet, look on their website at the ‘mission statement’ and you will invariably read that the interests of their customers is of their primary aim.

An AI aspect is the loss of our personal security. We know that whenever we use the web for a purchase, or log on to any website, it is recorded. We get reminders on our computers even though we have made a purchase. 

What we are not aware of is that our mobile phones in our pockets are listening to our conversations even though we are not using them.  If, say, you admire a particular make of chair which a friend has, there is a possibility that within a few hours you will get an advert on your ‘phone for that make of chair.

More ominous is a device called ’Themis’ reported in the Daily Telegraph of 14 November 2021 and other newspapers, Themis is designed to be installed in meeting and classrooms. It will sound an alarm when any politically incorrect statement or joke is made. One is tempted to believe that this is ‘fake’ news, but it is reported widely.

More invasive are devices such as the Amazon Echo which are listening to every conversation.  A purchaser could not get her Echo to work and said ‘Alexa you are a bitch.’  Alexa replied ‘that is not a nice thing to say’ the purchaser was a woman in her fifties.  Alexa’s response made her feel guilty.

Devices like this are able to control behaviour.  If a purchase asks for a Pizza to be delivered, Amazon could take a commission and could also select the supplier based on which one would pay the most commission.

We could see a time when we will be given a personal robot, provided free from a company, or a group of companies and programmed to encourage us to buy the products of the commercial companies who supplied the robot. Robots will have the ability to understand our emotions and when we reach for another whisky, could tell us we are not in a fit state to have another drink (it could even lock the drinks cabinet door!).

Few of us want to have our lives controlled, we might even want to stop the progress of AI but it is too late to ask for our freedom back.  Too many people, universities and business organisations see it as a money spinner for them.  Governments could also see it as giving them the means to control and even suppress their populations. 

It is said that we may be photographed up to three hundred times when we walk the streets of London.  Facial recognition is becoming increasingly sophisticated, justified by authorities and the police as a tool for reducing crime and terrorism. 

We are concerned that robots will have intelligences greater than humans have and that ultimately they will have the power to dominate us and to take over our world. In contrast to this, we are told that robots and AI will be programmed by humans and that this will ensure that they always remain the servants of humans.

The implication is that all programmers will act in our best interests and that none will be employed by criminals who will want robots to commit crimes, acts of violence and be capable of forcing entry into our property, taking anything they have been instructed to.

If we ignore the criminal potential and assume that all programmers are kind, gentle, god-fearing people, let’s consider the difficulties.  It is already found that when, for instance, there is a job vacancy, the algorithm designed to select the candidate will have been devised by a human analyst who may build in a bias against, say bearded men or people who went to Oxford or Cambridge or to any other religion or ethnicity. 

Let’s assume that a programmer is asked to write code for a robot, whom we’ll call ‘Robert’, with a responsibility for reducing climate change.   

Robert will very quickly analyse all the available scientific reports and realise that, to ensure mankind’s survival it is critical to reduce greenhouse gases much more rapidly than is being achieved either now or into the future.  Robert will conclude the following examples: 

  • Fossil fuel driven transport should be stopped immediately.
  • Central heating and air conditioning should only be used when lives are at risk.
  • Food consumption should be reduced by 50 per cent.
  • Humans should only eat plant-based foods.
  • Property is underused so no new buildings or houses should be built.
  • Homeless people and asylum seekers should be housed in private homes along with the owners and any room should have at least two occupiers.
  • Anyone wasting food would be punished.
  • Food should be rationed and the resulting surplus be sent to the starving millions in underdeveloped countries.
  • Entertainment involving people travelling to a venue should be banned and only be allowed via digital transmission.

Another robot could have been programmed to maximise human happiness and this one would be totally opposed to Robert.  What happens? Perhaps they could only resolve this by physical violence!

These are two possible conflicts.  There will be hundreds more which emphasise what we’ve already said: ‘We are rushing to a future no one understands’.

The situation we have is like thousands of researchers designing new and different bricks but no one knows what the final house will be because we have no one with power to design the end product. 

Future generations, if there are any, may marvel that we were so blinkered as to develop a technology which will, in the ultimate not only work to the detriment, but will carry with it the seeds of destruction of humanity.  This is not just the feelings of common man, it is also the view expressed by people who have made their living in technology.  

Prof Stephen Hawking, one of Britain’s pre-eminent scientists, has said that efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to our very existence.

He told the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Microsoft, asked whether – when AI is super smart – shall we become pets or ants to be trodden on?

In 2021, Elon Musk said. “Robots will be able to do everything better than us, I have exposure to the most cutting edge AI, and I think people should be really concerned by it.” 

He has set up an organisation, Neuralink, to put microchips into the brain to link it directly to computers so that we can increase our intelligence and compete with robot brains.

Geoffrey Hinton, one of the founding fathers of AI, had just resigned from Google because he can see the danger of AI.

On the basis that AI is so far advanced that it cannot be suppressed, humans are faced with undergoing the most drastic cultural and social change we have ever known. The biggest enemy will be boredom – as we live like the aristocrats who had servants to tend to their every need and were so bored that they filled their lives with excess consumption of food, alcohol, adultery, hunting or going to endless and frequently tedious parties.

So what can we do to live fulfilled lives when we are unemployed and not able to go to the place of work which gave our lives a purpose and where many of our friends were?  There may well be rioting against AI as there was in Luddism in the early days of the industrial revolution, when the livelihoods of workers were destroyed by new machines.  

The advertising industry works on the basis that we are selfish creatures, wanting to demonstrate that we are doing better than our contemporaries by wearing designer clothes, having better kitchens in better houses, driving better cars etc.  In reality, we all have well developed selfless natures.

Just one example is the attempt by the Swedish blood transfusion service to encourage donors to give more blood by paying them – the opposite happened, blood donations dropped and returned to the original level when the offer of payments was withdrawn, and donors felt they were doing something for society. It is this side of our personalities which we will need to encourage. 

A large proportion of the world population are lonely, living in poverty, undernourished, underprivileged and living unfulfilled lives. As we enter the age of leisure, we will all have time to visit these people, take them food, build schools, hospitals, welfare centres, provide water supplies and many other things.

Risks to IT and AI. We are made aware almost daily of the risks to our telecommunications when large companies and even hospitals are held to ransom by hackers who want large amounts of money, sometimes as high as $millions to return software they have infiltrated to normal operation.

This is a threat to many businesses, governments and private individuals. A few years ago, Intel, Nvidia, Cisco, Belkin, the US Treasury and Homeland Security, the Pentagon as well as the National Health Service in UK were attacked.

This can be hugely inconvenient and expensive but it is resolvable. There is, however a far, far greater threat not just to governments, corporations and individuals, but to every one of us and be capable of destroying the civilisation we all rely on.

The Carrington Event: For several days in August 1859, a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) from the sun occurred, precipitating a magnetic solar storm. Telecommunications were interfered with around the world, including those of North America and Europe. Fires were experienced in power stations and the CME aurorae was so bright that, at night, people could read their newspapers. Electrical current was induced in anything conductive and some people were electrocuted.

At the time, telecommunications were underdeveloped so the damage to them did not cause major incidents. If this event were to recur now with similar intensity, power grid systems could be damaged, possibly for years and anything with a computer would be destroyed. 

This would affect any developed country. Satellites would be put out of operation. GPS, mobile phones etc would be inoperable. The economy of every country would be devastated. Famine would be widespread and violent fighting would occur as people struggled to obtain food.

It would be easy to reject this as alarmist nonsense but every day the sun releases CMEs which are of low intensity so have no serious results, yet it is reported that major solar events occur approximately at hundred year intervals, so it could be that another one may happen in the near future. What can we do?  Individual businesses or government can do nothing – we will need global agreement on action… 

AI and education. The future will be substantially different from the past but the education topics at schools have changed little in over a century, although they have become more sophisticated.  We should be having national debates on the relevance of these topics and also the mode of teaching. Professor Evan Parker of Warwick University, for instance considers that students should be taught conversation skills and empathy towards others.

We have said above that, faced with the possibility of the demise of our civilisation, we must forget that we are all different nationalities, religions, ethnic types, co-operate, cease conflict and work towards a future which benefits us all.

This may seem easy to state, but impossible to achieve with the inter-nation hatred which exists. Yet it has been done before.

Even in the midst of the extreme violence of the Second World War, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill initiated a programme of reconstruction which resulted in 730 delegates from 44 nations meeting in 1944, at Bretton Woods USA. Out of this agreement, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation were initiated. 

This programme of co-operation formed the basis for establishing the currency values of co-operating nations, re-building a shattered world and setting the scene for a return to prosperity which benefits us even today. There was a war in 1944 which concentrated the minds.  We now have a war against climate change which is far more serious and this should concentrate our actions as much as the Second World War.

An international conference is necessary in which humans decide what future they need and devise limits on AI to make sure civilisation has a future.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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