On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse transmitted the first ever electronic message via telegraph—words that strike an eery chord in the world of today, nearly 174 years later.
“What hath God wrought?”
The biblical excerpt originates from the 23rd chapter of the book of Numbers, verse 23 (Numbers 23:23). The context of Morse’s and the Bible’s use of these words is similar: to proclaim the greatness of God and all “His” doings. Morse was a man of great faith, so it is to be assumed that he believed his invention was a culmination of the workings of God himself. It’s without doubt that the telegraph, an incredible advance in long-distance communication, was nothing short of spectacular. It was developed in a time where new inventions were blossoming around the globe, where the industrial revolution provided rapid resource dispersion, and where it’s believed the technological explosion sparked it’s tinder. However, Morse’s choice words for the first electronic message—though providential at the time—are interpreted by many as quite the contrary in the modern era. In the face of rampant, uncontrollable scientific progress, we find ourselves staring into the gaping depths of Pandora’s Box—anxiously awaiting the monstrosity we expect to emerge.
The technological revolution has hailed human achievements beyond what could have ever been imagined even a few decades ago. The development of the computer has caused an explosion of fruitful technologies that make our daily lives easier. Communication is instantaneous, transportation is faster than ever, and because of Siri, you no longer need to carry your pocket dictionary or encyclopedia on your person. As a result of the myriad of privileges at our disposal, it’s impossible to predict 10 years from now what the next wondrous feat of innovation will be. In fact, you can’t even predict 5 years down the road. It’s nearly impossible to extrapolate technological advancement nowadays because it’s expansion has been undoubtedly exponential.
Though to many, the advancements that have landed astronauts on the Moon, as well as those that consequently produced the microwave in your kitchen, along with their practicality simultaneously warrant fear. Technological progress has generated xenophobia (or technophobia) of a kind. In olden times, the tools you used in your daily life stayed mostly the same. If you were an ancient Roman proletariat working in the fields around 400 B.C., life didn’t change much for the entirety of it’s span. You could have, in a way, predicted the eventual outcomes of slow societal change or sluggish technological improvement. It’s quite expected that as our modern tools are constantly being improved or being rendered outdated at the rate that they are currently, people should become unsure of what’s next. We are utterly dependent on technology, yet it seems we hail no control over it. Pandora’s Box is open and we are hopeless to slam the lid.
“What hath God wrought?”
The fear of technology’s improvement is understandable. Within the next few decades, it’s expected that artificial intelligence will best human intelligence. AI can do in seconds what human capacity would take months, if not years to do. Among many artificial intelligence pioneers, consciousness is an objective — and a seemingly achievable one at that. We can’t even comprehend or accurately explain what consciousness is or what causes it, yet we are closing in on creating artificially conscious programs. Google’s DeepMind organization is one of the many corporations spearheading the AI research initiative. Though a benign example, the video posted below is DeepMind’s AI program teaching itself to walk and run. After incentivizing the program to go from point “A” to point “B”, this is the outcome:
But this is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, has also been bringing to light the possible malevolence of artificial intelligence. He has claimed on numerous occasions to have been exposed to the most advanced AI breakthroughs in the industry, and that we should be “seriously worried”. Musk has also been widely and openly against automation of military weapons and implementing artificial intelligence systems into weapons of war. In any case, it’s safe to assume that we are rapidly speeding towards creating human-level intelligent programs and robots, and we are immensely unprepared for it.
As a quick side-note:
Some could argue that if we create human-level artificially intelligent entities, we are creating “life”, in one form or another. It seems that we are toying with the affairs of gods, in which case, we should know what we contrive. If this is true, does that make us “homo deus”—that is, human gods? That’s for you to decide.
In 2015, Chapman University conducted it’s annual American public fear ranking. The 1,500 randomly selected constituents partaking in the study were tasked with filling out a survey in which their fears were split into items and categories. Given were 88 items or scenarios split into 10 categories: crime, personal anxieties, judgement of others, environment, daily life, environment, daily life, technology, natural disasters, personal future, man-made disasters, and government. Out of these 10 categories, natural disasters ranked first followed closely by technology in terms of fear score. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that this study may be a microcosm of current American psyche surrounding technology. Or, perhaps not. In the 2016 and 2017 versions of this same study, technology was not even ranked in the top ten. As new technologies come to fruition, as do corresponding fears. These things are all cyclical. Imagine that a widely publicized news story was broadcast right before the 2016 and 2017 studies were conducted, detailing the dangers of runaway technological advancement. Fear-mongering plays a huge role in public perception of, well, essentially anything. Interestingly enough, making the top of the fear list for both 2016 and 2017 was corrupt politicians. Taking place right around this timeframe was the extremely controversial 2016 American presidential election—neatly dressed with some lovely Russian interference. Ironically, the top news story for the entirety of the election was Trump controversies, Clinton controversies, and accusations of mutual corruption.
It’s undeniable that modern society and culture is seemingly overwhelmed with the rate at which our technology is advancing. Unfortunately, regulatory legislation widely lags behind these advancements—and it’s incredibly important that they keep pace. Drones seemed to be the first (slight) wakeup call for politicians, at least in the United States and North America. Even now, laws regarding personal drones are vague and generally unknown by the common man. Within the coming years, there is going to need to be a massive paradigm shift with both our society as well as our economic policies. When automation inevitably renders tens of millions of people unemployed, what happens then? These are problems that need to begin to be thought through now, because if they are addressed too late, catastrophe will be the consequence. I understand how fearful and anxiety-inducing such rapid change can be, but that does not mean we must fear it. If man is able to fully harness the power of technology’s unavoidable progress, we have a far greater chance of succeeding as a species than if we act hesitantly. In an era of post-fact, fake news, automation, and so on; there are plenty of situations that need to be addressed. But for a second imagine the prosperous outcome of teaching critical thinking skills allowing people to differentiate between what’s objectively true and what isn’t, as well as the outcome of regulating accurate news, and solving the impending automation-induced socioeconomic crisis. Humankind could flourish in the artificial light of our computer monitors, if only we’d act accordingly.
Like I said earlier, we are staring into the gaping depths of Pandora’s Box, anxiously awaiting the monstrosity of catastrophe to emerge. However, what I didn’t mention earlier was that we can arm ourselves, meet that monster at the gate, and successfully repel the impending doom.