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​Will Information Technology Control us?

Information technology has progressed so extraordinarily and rapidly in the 21st century that a frightening possibility arises, as pointed out by the bright minds of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking, the well-known British theoretical physicist, that humans might lose control and, eventually, certain critical technological developments could evolve to become a threat to civilization.

Says Bill Gates in 2015:  “First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and that should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though, super intelligence will be strong enough to be a concern.” For his part, Stephen Hawking writes in 2014: “Success in creating artificial intelligence would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.”

We prefer to think that such fears are groundless but there are scenarios that highlight the power that large computerized systems already are displaying. Let's look at two examples, one already in operation and one well on the way. The first is the Google model of ad commercials; the second, the Chinese 'social credit system', a scheme of control planned by the Chinese government to monitor its citizens.

Let's start with the undesired ads that we suffer as users of personal computers or smart phones (needless to say that many I-Phones and Galaxies have already enslaved their owners for quite some time). Ads chase us, harass us and, what is worse, since they are so designed to our preferences, interests, work activity, sex and age, we end up clicking them.

Search online for an electronic alarm for your home and soon after you will be receiving offerings of safes, automatic surveillance systems or theft insurance policies. Some ads hide the text you are reading; other, more subtle, aiming at our subconscious, flicker in a corner with intriguing colors. With no awareness of the action, a few days later we end up buying something we did not need.

The Chinese control system, on the other hand, is crawling with ups and downs since 2010 and, of course, it hopes to go far beyond checking people's credit reports. The ultimate intention seems to be to monitor in much detail everybody's acts in order to gain influence over the whole society behavior.

About this project, writes 'The Economist', that “China is beginning the most ambitious experiment in digital social control in the world”. According to government officials, "by 2020 it will allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step." Databases, digital surveillance of citizens and the reward and punishment programs of this totalitarian software are already complete.  

The commanding power on the technology-generated suggestions to the consumers when they work or have fun on their electronic devices still resides in the brains of professional Google geniuses. They teach the software the rules to generate the advertising instructions and how to improve results as they gain ‘intelligence’. Also, with no doubt, the Chinese government system will be monitored and guided by competent (though certainly biased) communist party super-technicians. (Saying ‘communist party’ is, of course, a tale.) Will things in both examples stay under human control?

I see it unlikely that any advertising software, while they continue to move toward unprecedented levels of sophistication, will ever create an 'electronic ego' which, like the human neuronal ego, develops greed, opens bank accounts, and steals money or goods from its victims. I also find it unlikely that the Chinese 'social credit system' will at some point go after power, like any greedy politician, and decide to give a coup d’état to Xi Jinping,  Secretary of the Communist Party and President of the China Republic , and proceed to take over the planet afterwards.

Although an uncontrolled technology could eventually command dangerous and illegal acts, it still does not fit in my head how a computer system can become conscious, greedy or arrogant. I definitely will not witness such a disaster. But that the possibility of catastrophic technological developments unsettle the minds of such intellectual heavy weights as Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, is something that do make me seriously worried about the fate of my grandchildren, all of them  under the age of fifteen.

Gustavo Estrada 
Author of '

Atlanta, December 28, 2016