Commentary

Might Artificial Intelligence Save Us From the Rapid Decline in Our Own?

By BILL BONVIE | Jul 26, 2017

A funny thing happened to me last week while I was out driving from point A to point B. In the process of decelerating to accommodate a drop in the speed limit, I glanced at my speedometer, only to find a totally alien display had somehow taken control of my car’s dashboard. Instead of miles per hour, I suddenly was looking at kilometers.

And as if that weren’t perplexing enough, even when I finally was able to pull over and check the situation out, I still couldn’t manage to get out of the metric mode. Then it occurred to me – maybe this was my car trying to let me know it was time to head for Canada, the closest place where speeds are measured in this manner.

OK, I don’t think my Honda Civic is really that smart, especially since it’s not one of those self-driving cars I’ve been hearing so much about lately (not that I’m all that enthralled with the idea of relinquishing the steering wheel, mind you). And it did turn out to be a glitch that could be fixed by holding down the right button, although I still can’t explain what caused it to flip over in the first place.

But it did get me thinking about where some experts believe we may now be heading: a society in which so-called artificial intelligence, or AI, as exemplified by the IBM celebrity supercomputer known as Watson, may soon be directing the course of human events. And despite all the trepidation that’s been expressed about that prospect, I say bring it on before it’s too late!

I’m not saying that lightly. Increasingly these days, I’ve been getting the distinct and uneasy feeling that the natural, God-given intelligence that supposedly puts the human race higher on the ladder of evolution than the rest of the planet’s inhabitants is on a steep downhill descent, if the dumbing down of the world’s dominant superpower is any indicator. If I’m right, artificial intelligence may be the only thing capable of saving us from our own exponentially expanding, self-imposed stupidity.

That hope has also been held out by the dean of the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, Andrew Moore, who recently told “60 Minutes” he doesn’t feel helpless when he looks at some of the biggest problems now confronting the world, such as terrorism, mass migration and climate because “this generation of young computer scientists is actually building technology to put the world right.”

But didn’t putting the world right used to be America’s job? Well, to a large degree, yes. Three-quarters of a century ago, we might not have first gotten through the country’s worst economic crisis followed by the most destructive war in the history of the world had we not been led by an individual with a dazzling intellect.

In his 12 years in office, FDR was able to come up with innovative ways to put millions of people whose lives had been upended by the Great Depression back to work rebuilding and improving the country’s infrastructure and preserving its natural resources. He then turned his mental energies to the myriad matters involved in facing not one but two formidable enemy powers, and all while confined to a wheelchair. But then, as author Marc Wortman has pointed out in his book, 1941: Fighting the Shadow War, he had the benefit of having a virtual geopolitical map of the world in his head.

While FDR had his share of opposition, his efforts enjoyed enough support and appreciation from the great majority of Americans to re-elect him three times, even managing to win the help and loyalty of his rival for the office the third time around.

By contrast, today we are led by a man who appears to be clueless about basic geographical facts, seeming unaware that Israel is in the Middle East and referring to Belgium as “a beautiful city.” Who, rather than focusing on ways to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, put economically distressed Americans back into decent-paying jobs and ensure that they and their families have health coverage, is obsessed with building a (now see-through) wall estimated to cost between $21 billion and $70 billion (but which he pretends that Mexico will somehow end up paying for), for the sole purpose of keeping out migrant laborers on whom our economy depends and finding phantom illegal voters responsible for denying him a popular mandate. Whose approach to protecting the country from terrorists is so perverse as to actually reinforce the recruiting message of ISIS by glorifying it as nothing less than a herculean threat to the very existence of Western civilization, while pulling out the welcome mat for people it hopes to alienate from American influence.

Then there’s the distinct resemblance he increasingly seems to exhibit to the characters in the ’90s sitcom “Seinfeld” and the ways they engaged in their various indiscreet, indecorous and inane antics. Remember the time that Jerry was convinced by his neighbor Kramer to hire a pair of unsavory Russians to install an illicit cable in his apartment (who ended up breaking his TV after he changed his mind)? And those early-morning tweets in response to criticism from TV or media personalities remind us of George, who, when told “the ocean called and they’re out of shrimp," replied, “Well, the jerk store called and they’re out of you!” One can even imagine a scene where George might have feigned a physical assault on a network correspondent for making fun of some harebrained idea he had to promote the Yankees.

And need I remind you of what befell all those characters in the final episode of the show?

Of course, if we were just talking about an intellectual vacuum at the top, that would be bad enough. But the fact remains that it couldn’t exist without the help of tens of millions of enablers – a minority of Americans, perhaps, but just enough to place this contemporary prince of the philistines into a position where millions more party loyalists would unthinkingly elevate him to power and a court of political sycophants would then find ways to rationalize his every unreasoned utterance (praising him as “genuine,” for instance, even while he constantly refers to the media as “fake”).

The result is that we now find ourselves suddenly plunged into an era of erudition eradication, a sort of Renaissance in reverse. And all for the apparent purpose of registering resentment and resistance to having our most crucial decisions made by so-called “elitists,” meaning the brightest and most knowledgeable among us, of which FDR was perhaps the quintessential example.

Not that we haven’t been drifting in this doltish direction for quite a while now. But the warning signs have been somewhat obscured by the last eight years of having a cerebral chief executive, albeit one whose capacity to do things (including choosing a Supreme Court justice) was hobbled by a Congress whose leaders seemed intent on igniting our most ignorant, ignoble and ignominious inclinations.

So here we are, at what is increasingly looking like the dawn of a new Dark Age, in which enlightenment has become an endangered species, and the Dunning-Kruger effect (in which a person has become too incompetent to understand his or her own incompetence) has become the dominant force in society. That is, unless the architects of artificial intelligence can ride to the rescue and, just as the creators of the internal combustion engine were able to supersede and superannuate “horse power,” manage to replace our shriveling ability to think and reason.

But what if AI should prove to be malevolent, a concern raised by eminent experts such as Elon Musk, who called it our most existential threat, and Stephen Hawking, who speculated that it “could spell the end of the human race”?

Unfortunately, that’s a risk we’ll simply have to take. Because the fact is that there’s no bigger threat immediately facing us than the decline of human intelligence now taking place, which may even be outpacing climate change.

So, Watson, come here. We want you. Urgently.  

Bill Bonvie of Little Egg Harbor Township is co-author of Badditives: The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in Your Diet – and How to Avoid Them and author of the essay collection Repeat Offenders.

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