Computer scientist Jaron Lanier suggests that for society to thrive in the age of artificial intelligence, data dignity — a concept under which people are paid for what they contribute to the web — is something we must carefully explore. It’s not about the robots taking over and obliterating the human race (although some think that’s going to happen!), it’s about putting people before machines, about prizing clarity of intent, purpose, and collaboration for the benefit of all.
The most pragmatic position is to think of A.I. as a tool, not a creature. My attitude doesn’t eliminate the possibility of peril: however we think about it, we can still design and operate our new tech badly, in ways that can hurt us or even lead to our extinction. Mythologizing the technology only makes it more likely that we’ll fail to operate it well—and this kind of thinking limits our imaginations, tying them to yesterday’s dreams. We can work better under the assumption that there is no such thing as A.I. The sooner we understand this, the sooner we’ll start managing our new technology intelligently.
If the new tech isn’t true artificial intelligence, then what is it? In my view, the most accurate way to understand what we are building today is as an innovative form of social collaboration.
A positive spin on A.I. is that it might spell the end of this torture, if we use it well. We can now imagine a Web site that reformulates itself on the fly for someone who is color-blind, say, or a site that tailors itself to someone’s particular cognitive abilities and styles. A humanist like me wants people to have more control, rather than be overly influenced or guided by technology. Flexibility may give us back some agency.
Anything engineered—cars, bridges, buildings—can cause harm to people, and yet we have built a civilization on engineering. It’s by increasing and broadening human awareness, responsibility, and participation that we can make automation safe; conversely, if we treat our inventions as occult objects, we can hardly be good engineers. Seeing A.I. as a form of social collaboration is more actionable: it gives us access to the engine room, which is made of people.