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
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.
Author of 'INNER
HARMONY through MINDFULNESS MEDITATION'
Atlanta, December 28, 2016