Hazem Saghieh

On the Wealth, and Dearth, of Artificial Intelligence

Some Western intellectuals have voiced their frustration with certain ideas about artificial intelligence and robots as a threat that could “invade our territory, displace us from our homes, consume our resources, and even marry our women.” Such fantastical notions were initially spread by science fiction films, as the supernatural and bizarre sells more tickets than “mundane” factual representation and projection.

One thing that is not a fantasy, however, is that AI bots far outpace humans and are incomparably more efficient and disciplined at collecting and filtering data. Meanwhile, there are ongoing efforts to enhance the capacities of AI and make it more intelligent and proficient at executing the tasks asked of it. However, besides the limitations inherent to it, AI will seemingly never have human imagination or the capacity to take numerous and un-programmed actions that humans can. Thus, AI is only better than humans at executing the tasks set by the human mind.
Between the two ends of this spectrum, we can examine the opposite poles of this relationship: beyond a doubt, artificial intelligence, as well as the broader technological revolution often referred to as the “fourth industrial revolution,” will leave humanity far more prosperous. However, that is in the long term, while this technology creates short-term risks apparent for us all to see.

Here, we may point to some of the most significant of these risks: economically, major technological shifts invariably trigger labor displacement and mass unemployment among those whose professions and jobs are rendered obsolete by technological progress. Given the speed and pervasiveness of the “fourth industrial revolution” underway today, job obsolescence seems faster and more comprehensive. However, this revolution has broken out amid neoliberal policies that have not established social safety nets to protect the poorest and most vulnerable, giving rise to fears that this revolution could lead to unbearable human suffering similar to that brought about by the 18th-century Industrial Revolution. Such broad suffering would necessarily be accompanied by political upheaval, which we may only be seeing as the beginning of the rising tide of populism. Moreover, if a broad, strong, and stable middle class is necessary for the sustainability of democracy, this class has been significantly undermined by technological shifts. Indeed, the framework of working in the same field for three decades and then retiring has become a relic of the past.

Faced with profound shifts like those we are seeing, intervention in the market becomes a must, as the Lyndon B. Johnson administration did in the 1960s by establishing the “Great Society,” in addition to investing in the education and training of the working population in a way that keeps up with rapidly changing new professions.
However, even in the long term, when this technology is expected to create prosperity and bear fruit, only structural shifts in both politics and economics can ensure that everyone benefits from this newfound wealth. Without such measures, the wealth would be monopolized by large corporations, while the vast majority would be left to merely scrape by on meager crumbs.
Another disconcerting matter is the capacity of technological progress to facilitate the manipulation of facts and the dissemination of fake news and misinformation. As we know, social media companies use smart algorithms to determine the content we see, thereby influencing what we do and do not read. This modus operandi is reinforced by the profits racked in by seizing our attention, taking ownership of our digital content, and reselling it. Today, information technology companies rank among the most profitable worldwide. The threat this poses is further compounded by our understanding of the profound and broad changes to the media landscape brought about by platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and like, which have fundamentally altered how news is about.

Those institutions facilitate the organization of an immense flow of information through a system of prioritization that serves the interests of these companies: what shows up first on our news feeds, what shows up second, etc... which content is highlighted and which is concealed... Indeed, the more content on social media is interacted with and shared, the greater the advertising opportunities. However, this engagement also creates opportunities for getting to know those behind it and what they like, as well as determining which advertisements they should be directed to. As this is happening, Internet use is increasing by the day worldwide.
Fake news spread faster than factual information. Its rapid circulation can be used to rig elections, raise doubt about science, and undermine trust in institutions in favor of oversimplified populist narratives. Rather, it can be used to promote harmful commodities and smear beneficial ones.

Autonomous AI-powered weapons raise another problem, which is best exemplified by drones. These machines determine the outcome of their missions, that is, their lethal operations. Should decisions regarding human life and death be entrusted to machines? Numerous voices have cautioned against the unregulated advancement of these instruments of destruction and called for a global ban on autonomous weaponry. Yet, what we are seeing is a global race for dominance in drone technology. Currently, delegating life-and-death decisions to machines undermines the basic principle of holding people accountable for their actions. Instead of moving forward, treading a path devoid of accountability risks a regression back to barbarism.
There are also instances, fueled by certain narratives that suggest technological progress will relieve us of the burden of thinking, ending history by presenting seemingly magical and all-encompassing solutions. Indeed, technology could be tasked with discerning “right” from “wrong,” rendering us passive recipients devoid of initiative and critical faculties.
Apart from the laziness that accompanies such a scenario, it is unlikely that the machine,” thinking” based on the information it has been fed, would come to conclusions that favor the poorest and the most vulnerable. Moreover, the “objective solutions” it presents to contentious issues regarding interests, ideas, and programs are designed to favor the powerful and wealthy who “feed” it.

Thus, nothing but impoverishment would remain of the prosperity that had been promised, making us seem like we are accelerating the speed of a train only for it to lose control and hit a wall.