The first man to be beaten by a machine is now optimistic about AI.
Gary Kasparov, Russian chess champion, also holds the title of being the first human beaten by a machine. The momentous occasion happened in 1997. He reportedly did not react well to his defeat, once accusing IBM of cheating by using a humans to improve the computer’s gaming strategy. He would later become one of the first voices to warn about the danger of AI. So, it is with great surprise that I read last week his turn-of-heart article where he encourage readers to embrace the AI revolution.
He is describing what I talked about in the blog about augmentation – machines taking over menial tasks leaving us free to pursue occupations that require creativity. That is, since machines are well suited for performing repetitive endeavors with precision, humans are then free to create new products, improve on existing systems and care for each other.
Wall-E: the adorable truth-speaking robot
On Saturday, for our family movie night, we sat down to watch Wall-E. I was excited about the choice and the break from the usual tales of fair princesses. Indeed, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this animated movie. The robot characters and their romance are as endearing as it could get. It is funny, adorable and in some ways prophetic. Sophia, my seven year-old, turned to me at the end of the movie to inform me that the movie teaches a lesson on how to care of our earth. Even kids get it!
If you have not watched it, please do so in the next few days. Without giving much of the story away, the movie paints a bleak future of an Earth abandoned and trashed. The only remaining survivors are a cute clean-up robot called Wall-E and his companion cockroach. He toils away day after day compacting and piling up trash. Yet, in his spare time he watches old musicals in an old TV set. His world changes when EVE, an adorable female robot, arrives on earth in search for life.
The movie centers on their budding relationship in which humans play only a secondary part. In the movie, people live in a cruise-like spaceship designed by a large multi-national corporation to keep them in space until the clean up effort on Earth was complete. Except, the clean up effort failed and humanity was stuck in this ship where robots catered to all their needs. So much so, that most did not even walk developing morbidly obese bodies. Sounds eerily familiar? Well, it should.
Now what these two stories have in common?
I see the Wall-E modern parable as a cautionary tale of a Kasparov’s vision going terribly wrong. By replacing all labor with robots , humans would be doomed to entertain themselves to death. It raises questions about the recent discussions on technology replacing human employment with basic guaranteed income. The irony of the movie was that while the robots were there to serve humans, humans had actually become enslaved to the machines.
They had built the the perfect convenient life that they lost themselves in the machines meant to make their lives better.
They never pursued the higher endeavors of creativity, art and building new worlds. Their desire atrophied, their vision darkened and their lives became a meaningless distraction from the real work waiting for them on earth.
What then is AI hope?
Kasparov’s point is still well-taken, as long as we balance it with the lessons from Wall-E. Technology created to set us free had many times enslaved to addictive entertainment. I see that in the growing popularity of video games which now is not confined to children anymore but has become a serious hobby for adults.
The future of augmentation, must be built around a telos that goes beyond the perpetual pursuit for novelty. Motherboard released an article titled “people don’t want to leave AI up to corporations“. Raising the question is a good start. Left to their own devices, corporations will continue to feed us with perpetual dreams of novelty. While progress will occur, and quality of life will improve, resources will be channeled to what is profitable not what is good.
AI hope starts by broadening the conversation. It must begin by extending the table and welcoming new stakeholders to the conversation. The purpose of human flourishing must be a guiding principle.
In a micro level, this means expanding the digital opportunities of employment to those usually shut out of them. It starts with movements to teach STEM skills in schools and homes. It begins by de-mystifying computer work from being specialized for the “geeks” to being everybody’s work, especially girls and minorities.
Towards that end, it is encouraging to see companies like Facebook and Apple offering coding camps and other resources that democratize IT knowledge. Yet, the vision of benevolent augmentation, where humanity is free from toil and directed towards creativity, will not come through technologies or even tech companies. It will come by the collective work of multiple stakeholders steering the development of technology towards equal opportunity. In short, it must be primarily concerned with human flourishing.
How can you make your voice heard in the AI conversation? How can you influence the development of technology towards human flourishing? I would love to hear your thoughts.