The research, writing, and editing of this post was part of an undergraduate project undertaken for a Rutgers Honors College seminar in Fall 2020, “Literatures of Artificial Intelligence.” The author’s bio follows the post.
In 1955, John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” (AI)—the ability of machines to perform intelligent tasks including cognitive processes like learning, generalizing, and decision-making. Since then, there has been both fervent excitement and apprehension on the topic. Today, we continue to be afraid of AI in part because of the apocalyptic images that are often associated with it: skyscraper-sized robots stampeding over cities, a world engulfed in flames, humans bowing submissively to the very machines that we built. More commonly, imagining a future of artificial intelligence means mass unemployment, systematic invasion of privacy, and “deep fakes” everywhere. Despite our widespread fears about AI, the technology’s progress has undeniably improved our lives in ways that are especially evident during the age of COVID-19.
Human beings have a long history of expressing doubt about the advancement of technology. When the refrigerator was invented, consumers rejected the product for several decades despite its practicality (“History of Refrigeration”). The initial backlash against refrigerators is hard to imagine today, in a world in which nearly 100% of modern households own at least one refrigerator (Long 1). This pattern of fearing new technologies extends from product to product. Forward-thinkers like Steve Jobs can visualize technologies before they exist at all. However, most people can’t and many fear the unknown.
Widespread anxiety about technological advancement is exacerbated by popular depictions of AI. For example, venture capitalist Bryan Johnson believes that “the rate of improvement as humans is flat” while AI continues to advance (Ford 514). His comparison plants an “us-vs-them” ideology in our minds and positions technology as the foe of humanity. In the early nineteenth century, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, a novel telling the story of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who creates a monstrous creature. Wherever he goes, he causes fear and panic, as shown when the family whom he has been silently observing finally sees him: Agatha faints, Safie runs, and Felix violently fights him (Shelley 161). Even Victor regrets having created such a hideous monster. Goaded by societal ostracism and verbal abuse from his creator, the monster is driven to kill innocent people to terrorize Victor. The raw, impassioned rage that the monster expresses for his own creator is alarming: “I may die, but first you, my tyrant and tormenter, shall curse the sun that gazes on your misery.” (Shelley 206). The intense resentment radiating from both Victor and the monster for each contrasts with society’s sacred parent-child relationship. This novel has been on the reading list of many American high schools for decades and has become the go-to monster story. Thus, Frankenstein represents an extreme human fear of the destruction that technology may wreak.
In the mid-twentieth century, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot portrayed artificial intelligence in more recognizable form. Asimov’s robots are programmed with three rules that require them to serve humans at all costs. The Rules of Robotics are that robots must not allow a human to come into harm, must obey humans, and must protect their own existence (subject to the first two rules) (Asimov 27). In contrast to Frankenstein’s vengeful and murderous creature, I, Robot’s opening short story features a robot saving the life of a little girl, “act[ing] immediately and with precision”. (Asimov 17). Yet, Asimov’s stories also emphasize the complexity of intelligent robots, and the difficulty of implementing the rules, creating scenarios in which the robots confuse human characters by seeming to act in immoral or threatening ways. For example, a robot lies to a human to avoid hurting her feelings and a robot almost causes two scientists to lose their lives in space because of a dilemma caused by the first law (Asimov 76, 112). However, in both instances, nothing catastrophic happens. While I, Robot portrays AI in a more positive light than Frankenstein by highlighting the benefits of technology, the technologically optimistic picture is still haunted by a dystopian cloud of uncertainty.
During the current pandemic, AI has been a useful tool in protecting humans from spreading COVID-19. For example, machine learning models have been used to track and predict the spread of the virus. Through training the software with the new data daily, algorithmic prediction is becoming more promising (“National Institute of Health”). As models for tracking COVID-19 become more intelligent, they can better predict how community spread can be alleviated. Beyond directly keeping us informed and saving lives, AI plays a significant role in aiding the current education crisis. Zoom, a video conferencing platform that has exploded since the onset of the pandemic, has implemented features that use AI to better our learning experiences through features like live transcription. Additionally, researchers are developing and testing AI tutors, “software systems that students interact with online” who can “give everyone individualized attention” (Jang 1). AI has been heavily relied on throughout the pandemic and continues to be a hot topic of research, but machine learning technologies have been improving the quality of life for years, through techniques such as topic modelling and the advances natural language processing which improve Google’s search engine (Sharma 1). As a student, I have personally experienced how tools like Zoom and Google have not only made safe education possible but also, in some ways, even more effective than it was in-person.
But we also cannot ignore the threats that come with technological advancement. For example, AI surveillance is controversial. It is used to improve the safety of cities by deterring crime and improving traffic by detecting movement at stoplights (Feldstein 1). On the other hand, surveillance prompts difficult questions about racial bias and invasion of privacy. Today, technology is not just watching us, but may also be on its way to replacing some of our jobs. The pandemic’s lockdown highlighted the benefits of technologies such as Zoom while simultaneously expediting automation of blue collar jobs (Semuels 1). The loss of some of these jobs is temporary, but many people will remain unemployed. The question now becomes: to what extent will new jobs be created for them?
Throughout the pandemic, AI has caused both uneasiness and satisfaction. Although there are no monsters terrorizing their creator, as in Frankenstein, we find a resemblance to I, Robot, where robots exist for mostly human benefit but could potentially have detrimental consequences. For now, some of our fears are valid, not in the “us-vs-them” perspective but rather an “us-vs-us” dystopia, where our own creations can potentially hurt ourselves or each other, either intentionally or unintentionally. In the end, AI poses social dilemmas and significant uncertainty, but its contributions during an unprecedented time like a pandemic suggests that it’s still worth exploring, so long as we pledge to do so carefully.
Ashley Chang is a sophomore at Rutgers studying computer science and economics. She is optimistic about the future of Artificial Intelligence and interested in pursuing a career in the intersection of business and technology.
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