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Quentin Millington

Marble Brook

Consultant and Coach

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An AI crossroads: Which path will you choose?

We have reached a crossroads with artificial intelligence. If we choose the easy direction, AI will exacerbate societal ills. If, however, we take the more thoughtful and yet arduous path, AI might well enrich our lives. Quentin Millington navigates.
girl walking near trees: at an AI crossroads

Artificial intelligence (AI) is technology that enables machines – computers and robots – to simulate human intelligence and problem-solving skills. But does the capacity of machines to attain desired goals make them intelligent?

Just as philosophers debate, now managers wave their cheque-books.

Good versus bad

Will this technology advance our interests? Humans are divided. Some believe AI will solve the world’s problems while others are sure it will wreck society once and for all. There’s also a fair-sized group of people who have buried their heads in the sand, from either anxiety or unconcern.

For many, the discourse has taken on a quasi-religious fervour. AI will spare us dull work and transport every man, woman and child to a utopia of meaning and leisure. Or, AI will throw everyone save the plumber on to the street, then turn us all into paper clips.

Such black-and-white thinking may please the algorithms of social media, not least because they fomented it in the first place. But crude ideas are of little use when we wrestle with how to use the technology in the real world. (What is more, we should be foolish to let AI settle its own fate.)

Whilst we may not fully control the technology – that is, after all, in large measure the point – we can today set its initial course. In doing so, we have a choice to make.

Does the capacity of machines to attain desired goals make them intelligent?

Foolish versus thoughtful AI

Will we harness AI to amplify human folly, aggravating the harms of our ‘developed’ society? Or will we have the courage and foresight to explore new directions and use the technology to mimic our intelligence? In opting for the latter, it may be possible to construct a world where humans flourish.

Obsession with outputs

Half the world is bewitched by the outputs of generative systems, whilst the other half takes comfort in such outputs still being flaky. Before long, however, AI outputs will equal or surpass those of humans, and at lower cost.

Creative communities hold tight to the fiction that human imagination will have the last word. The flaw in this argument is that much of the world will be content with, and so pay for, the mediocre outputs of a machine. The economically viable space for creative humans will shrink to a pinhead.

A thoughtful approach to AI will see that the value of a watch lies in the skill and labour of the watchmaker, and not merely in how it keeps time. Even if a computer could spit out the words of a Shakespeare sonnet, the result would lack meaning, for a machine knows neither love nor loss. 

In short, we must value the creative act just as, or indeed before, we price the material outputs. As technology advances, this imperative, which I explore in my newsletter ChatGPT is an answer to the wrong question, has to guide our decisions.

A machine knows neither love nor loss

Cogs in a machine

Bertrand Russell explains in The Impact of Science on Society how science tends to render man a cog in its machine. What are Meta’s users, but cogs in a system designed to serve the ends of the company’s advertisers?

As technology advances, division of labour aggravates the cog problem and the space for individual agency diminishes.

Moreover, as AI performs more jobs, people have fewer ways to be useful. Western countries are ill-equipped to provide for populations who live outside the labour market.

Thoughtful AI will open paths for us to undertake meaningful work, shape our lives and contribute to society.

Defeatist personal values

Many of us lead sedentary lives, scrolling daily through meaningless rubbish as we spend hours staring zombie-like at a tiny screen. 

Chronic diseases are on the rise, whilst mental health is failing. The internet invites us to lie on the sofa and foolish AI promises convenience that will glue us to the seat.

Thoughtful AI will allow us to spend more time on activities that help us flourish. This excludes X (formerly Twitter), fake news and WhatsApp over supper.

Thoughtful AI will open paths for us to undertake meaningful work

Giant mirrors of code

University of Edinburgh philosopher Shannon Vallor explains how AI systems are ‘giant mirrors of code’ that reflect the biases, values and thinking held in oceans of historical data. 

Contrary to the  glib rhetoric that technology is a path to the future, AI chains us to the moral character of the past. The more power we give AI, the less we use our own wisdom.

Thoughtful AI will afford each of us a chance to make ethical choices and exercise more robustly our uniquely human moral agency.

Brains wired to machines

As neurotechnology – the wiring of the human brain to machines – advances, we encounter tough questions about personhood, mind control, personality and tampering with natural capacities. Reckless mavericks will cause untold chaos with their mad ambitions to create the latest Frankenstein’s monster.

Thoughtful AI, however, will allow us, for example, to make better prosthetics or cure hearing loss, whilst submitting to robust ethical governance.

AI is nothing in the absence of human intelligence

Narrow corporate values

The values that drive corporate investments are typically cost-efficiency and profit maximisation. In The Conquest of Happiness, Russell  said of the businessman: “Of springtime and harvest he knows only as they affect the market”; his working-life has the “psychology of a hundred-yards race […] whose only goal is the grave”.

Thoughtful AI will help companies generate financial returns by maximising the value they create for human beings and for the world we live in.

Wealth and power divides

Inequality is a major societal issue, whereas technology moves money and power to the owners of systems. With foolish AI, we shall not employ a writer to craft website copy or a therapist to hear our story of unrequited love. Rather, we shall hand money to a Silicon Valley start-up that sells AI robots.

Thoughtful AI will create wealth for shareholders just as it allows employees and customers, even ‘users’, to enrich their lives and the lives of others.

Rally behind human intelligence

If AI is not to amplify the worst of society, we cannot jump on the bandwagon as soon as it draws near. AI is nothing in the absence of human intelligence: we must ensure it never becomes anything in the presence of human folly.

If you enjoyed this, why not read How to leverage the paradox of AI making HR more human next?

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Quentin Millington

Consultant and Coach

Read more from Quentin Millington