Two seemingly unrelated news stories piqued my interest recently. Earlier this month, the Guardian newspaper published an article written by a robot. And last week, the New York Times published the news of the first known death from a cyberattack in Dusseldorf, Germany, where a woman died while being transferred to another hospital as a the facility she was taken to the first time was locked down due to a ransomware attack.
Are we becoming slaves to the technological blitz we ourselves have unleashed onto the planet? Have we created our own Frankenstein’s monster, and now have no means to control it?
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On the face of it, the benefits of the exponential growth of technological advancement, especially in the last three decades, cannot be denied. Our world has become a much smaller place, where we communicate from the furthest corners of the earth with voice and video at the mere touch of a button. The information revolution has brought us closer to each other, and new breeds of businesses and career possibilities have opened up like never before. Driverless cars are no longer in the realm of science-fiction, which drastically reduces the possibilities of road deaths due to car crashes. McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that by 2030, AI could deliver additional global economic output of $13 trillion per year.
But will all this really benefit humankind in the long-term? Prominent scientists like the late Stephen Hawking, and even tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, the owner of the electric-vehicle firm Tesla, have spoken fervently about the dangers of relying too much on AI.
Even in our own lives, we are steadily falling prey to technology. Let’s take a test — when was the last time you dialed a number of memory, instead of finding the contact’s name on the phone? When was the last time you drove to a place without using Google Maps?
The answers to these will tell you that the average Homo Sapiens — literally, intelligent man — is perhaps getting a little less smart? So ironically, the smarter the world of machines are getting, we are losing the edge, it would seem.
Coming back to where we started from, with technology penetrating every aspect of our lives, the perils become far more obvious. Just suppose if a cybercriminal can hack into the electricity and water systems of a city. Not very difficult, it is, after all, a matter of tricking the computer systems that manage these facilities to believe that the attacker is a bona fide person and has the right to access. That person can kill hundreds just by this action. Just as last week, cybercriminals invaded 30 servers at University Hospital Dusseldorf , crashing systems and forcing the hospital to turn away emergency patients. As a result, German authorities said, a woman in life-threatening condition was sent to a hospital 20 miles away in Wuppertal and died from treatment delays, the New York Times reported.
The point is thus not whether AI is beneficial or not to mankind. The point is we are getting so enamored with AI that we are stopping to think for ourselves.
For example, let us take the advent of 5G. This fifth generation of cellular technology has very little to do with faster mobile phones and games, although that remains a part. The main growth in 5G is expected from what is called the ‘Internet of Things’ — smart appliances like refrigerators, ovens, washing machines, driverless cars etc. These gadgets will have the capability to sense, say when the milk is running out and thus place an order. Or to start washing clothes on its own, and the like.
Have we ever paused to ponder how much of this is necessary? Suppose the fridge orders the milk, but it may be that I was not feeling like having milk and that’s why I let the carton run empty and was planning to buy juice instead. The fridge does not have the requisite data to predict my eating habits — it will simply determine the shopping list based on past purchases.
Coming to driverless cars, a few experiments that have been done so far have not proved very successful precisely for this reason. Driverless cars engage in what we may call ‘rational behaviour’ — but human beings do not always behave rationally. Thus several crashes have taken place.
AI programs may also incorporate the prejudices of their programmers and the humans they interact with, the Council of Europe warns. The body points out how a Microsoft AI chatbot called Tay became racist, sexist and anti-Semitic within 24 hours of interactive learning with its human audience. Another software (COMPAS), which was developed to help US courts, predict the odds of defendants re-offending, was found to be biased against African-Americans.
On top all of this, our immediate surroundings are plagued by the likes of Siri, Alexa and other virtual assistants. Apologies for the word ‘plague’, as tech puritans would surely troll me for this. Is it really necessary to depend on your computer/smartphone/tablet to book your salon appointment, or to play your favourite songs?
These uses of AI is not only belittling the potential of this phenomenon, but dumbing us down in the process.
Let us unleash the power of the human mind for a broader impact. Let us celebrate the explosion in technological advancement to make our lives better, not easier.