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Why is it that we as a species have such a deep fear for the A.I. uprising? More importantly, where does this fear stem from and what are its implications?
All stories need an antagonist and this one is a particularly nebulous one: Artificial Intelligence.
But what is it?
Artificial intelligence (or A. I. as it is known among the hip crowd) is the concept of man-made intelligence… And also a remarkably underrated movie by Steven Spielberg. In layman terms, A. I. equates to a series of circuits and bits bouncing off each other until a machine is able to perform decisions without command, much like a human would but without pesky human emotions… Yes, A. I. is pure logic without emotion, in other words, a truly neutral intelligence. But is it really?
Perhaps we need to step back even further and ask ourselves what logic is.
We tend to separate emotion from logic as if these are opposable ways of processing information but, in reality, emotion is the very basis of logic.
In fact, some of us take an unwarranted amount of pride over how “logical” and “unemotional” we are. A sentiment I found a bit troublesome because there’s no real way to measure how logical one really is and because (as I previously mentioned) all logic is the result of emotion.
Let’s look at this example: moments after we learned how to use fire in our favor we also learned that touching it can harm us, harm caused us pain and pain caused us distress. A few generations later, it became logical, even obvious, that touching fire was a no-no.
But how does this relate to the fear of our machine overlords (which, I, for one, welcome)?
Fear of the unknown
To understand that, perhaps the words of H.P. Lovecraft are the most fitting to describe this type of fear.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
In Lovecraft’s stories we found a cold and uncaring universe that didn’t really bother to see humans as meaningful and humans failing to see meaning in life in a universe that didn’t bother to see them at all. In his stories, we humans fear what lies behind our limited scope of understanding. In fact, being granted knowledge of such mysteries would lead to disaster and misery.
The author of “The Call of Cthulhu” understood how fear ruled our lives, and looking at the issue at hand, I can’t help but to see what he saw. We fear A.I. (in part) because we don’t understand it.
Most people think of A.I. as the result of what Hollywood depicted in admittedly amazing classics such as Terminator and Matrix. A.I. as a creation that we could never control from the start and inadvertently led us to our doom.
As humans we can understand logic and emotion… but what we can’t understand is the inexistence of one or another.
When we look at the roots of this sentiment we begin to realize how similar the fear of A.I. is to the fear we feel for psychopathic serial killers.
People like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy are scary to most of us because we can’t understand them. They operate in their own logic and reasoning. Even if we can figure out an explanation to that logic, we can never truly comprehend or accept it.
In the same way, we can’t truly understand intelligence without emotion. As such, we fear it.
Fear of the known?
Yet, I don’t think this alone is quite enough to explain the phenomenon. The fear of A.I. is in essence paradoxical. We fear it because parts of it are so alien to us… but what about the parts that are familiar to us?
A.I. is, after all, a product of humanity and as such it’s reflective of ourselves. While it is definitely a heavy-handed comparison, I can’t help but to think of the bible when even God couldn’t escape his own ego and created humans to his image, how would humans be able to not pour a little bit of themselves into their own creation, then?
Previously, I allude to H.P. Lovecraft, it’s only fair I talk about another horror writer that I admire. Stephen King is known to some as the de facto horror writer of the XXI century. Unlike Lovecraft, King sought to spook his audience not with the greater scheme of things and how insignificant we are in it, but through the smaller, everyday, mundane threats.
The horror wasn’t a product of higher uncaring intelligence, but of our loved ones, our neighbors or even our pets and how these could be twisted into things more horrible than monsters.
Fears like these are easy to relate with, after all, to some degree, we all can imagine the horror of the things we take for granted turning against us.
That is yet another reason we fear A.I.: we imagine it’s too much like us. We fear that A.I. will inherit the worst parts of humanity, our greed and imperialistic ways and, as a result, it will engage us, its’ creators, in a struggle for dominance.
Personally, I don’t believe this fear as any substance to it, but that’s not point. I’m writing this because I want to understand the fear of A.I., not accessing if it is or not valid.
Concerning the paradoxical nature of this fear, I feel it is relevant to point out that there’s a very similar and much more realistic situation where we experience a similar sort of contradictory fear.
The fear we feel towards younger generations.
Honestly, I feel I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m no longer part of the younger generation and while it’s a surprise that creeps on you, it’s not a totally unwelcome one since it is exciting to see how a generation differs from your own, even if it’s also terrifying to some extent.
I’ve found myself talking with my coworkers and realizing that there are, for example, apps that are extremely popular among the younger crowd but that we as grown adults can’t really understand the appeal to them. Of course, this is no different from how my parents could never understand the appeal of playing video games for 5 straight hours.
While app choices aren’t a big deal, I’m sure that at some point in my life I’ll look at the generation that came after mine and I’ll question their actions. In return, for sure, I’ll be “ok boomer’d” or whatever equivalent we’ll have at the time. But I’ll survive.
With this, we can begin to understand why we fear A.I. We fear it because there are parts of it we can’t understand, it operates under its’ own unique logic, a logic that is different from ours and, as such, is bad and menacing. But we also fear what is human about A.I.: we fear it’ll try to do to us what we did to other species and even other races. In short, we fear we’re no longer the dominant species.
In this sense, “A.I.” and “Younger generation” are terms we could use interchangeably.
In an almost Freudian way, A.I. represents the “new”, the next step in evolution as a species, and is essentially synonymous with improvement and moving forward. The same attributes could be given to the generation that comes after ours, even if our pride denies us that realization.
What we fear isn’t a tin man with an automatic rifle for arms. what we fear is being left behind, no longer asserting our will on those around us, but instead having their will forced on us.
At the end of the day, A.I. is another tool for us, much like fire. We may not have been able to control it completely and it is disingenuous to say our attempt at doing so hasn’t caused victims along the way, but it’d be equally dishonest to suggest that we as a species could have gone so far without having mastered it.
A.I. is just a scapegoat for a much more ancient and natural fear: The fear of being alienated and powerless by younger, stronger specimens. The fear that the world goes on without us, either as people or as a species.