Since World War I, there have been many advances in technology. Due to a visible decline in religious faith, American technology has lost its guiding light that kept it on the right path for many decades. The most obvious one in my lifetime has been nuclear energy or the so-called Bomb that has the capacity to destroy the world. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) kept the world free from self-annihilation for generations but with the current changes in global power relationships, a possible nuclear holocaust is once again a viable threat to humanity.
The second one, which is a much more subtle threat to our immortal souls, has been Television. It was pure serendipity that the day I started to write this essay, communications pioneer Newton N. Minow’s obituary ran in the New York Times. In 1961, as the F.C.C. chairman under President John Kennedy, Minow sent shock waves through the culture by calling Television a vast wasteland.*
He described TV as a medium replete with…unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad guys, gangsters…endless commercials…and most of all boredom. In 2019, Minow** lamented his harsh criticism of what some have called the idiot box because he wanted to be remembered for his role in the advancement of communication in satellites which led to an information revolution, to digital communications and to the internet.
This tasty morsel of irony underscored his lack of awareness as to the fact that a digital revolution would invariably lead to Artificial Intelligence and more threats to the future of mankind. In the minds of the cultural savvy, it probably created a Pavlovian salivatory response. A consequence of this has been the fact that the world is metaphorically being drowned in a sea of information. This is reminiscent of the T. S. Eliot 1934 poem, The Rock: Where is the Wisdom we have lost in Knowledge? Where is the Knowledge we have lost in information?
While ideas of thinking machines and Bots may trace their origins back to the Greeks, in this country the idea of thinking machines has usually been relegated to Science Fiction. The first talk of possibly making such a functional machine dates back to the 1930s. A comprehensive series of articles in the New York Times revealed in early May that much of the information from Google, Microsoft and OpenAI about its origins has been what they call hallucinations or in the popular parlance false statements or fake news. Contrary to these reports, the Times did not feature anything about AI until 1963.
To me Artificial Intelligence or AI sounds more like an oxymoron. It raises the question as to how can intelligence be artificial? I think one needs a functioning brain to be able to reason, fantasize and imagine. While I know little about all of its nuances and complexities, I have had some terrible experiences with the moronic robots who answer the phone on most 800 numbers, from health care to buying something online. I know I am stressed out when I start yelling at a dense-minded, bodiless voice who has not been programmed to answer my wide variety of questions. It is often a pure torture for me before the AI finally transfers me to a living human being with a real brain. Recently, I was trying to access a local restaurant for a reservation and failed every time because I failed to prove I was NOT a robot.
My son-in-law introduced me to a website called Chatbot where one presents a series of questions or an outline for a resume or a letter of resignation. I can only imagine how many students are using this Bot to write their term papers. This will undoubtedly save millions of students constant hours of learning how to think, write and explain. These are all seemingly unnecessary skills in the WOKE World to come.
When Deep Blue, a supercomputer from IBM, defeated World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, it signaled the machine’s victory over the human race. But again someone had to program Blue with an extensive strategy, enabling it to quickly process the finite moves that could be made. It was speed, not intelligence that allowed AI to overpower the human intellectual capacity to sort out all the possible consequences of his move. Man can reason but he cannot process millions of pieces of information as fast as a machine can.
Is this what our world is becoming? Now that I have started to read articles, such as the one that appeared in April, written by the Godfather of Artificial Intelligence, Geoffrey Hinton, I am starting to worry a little more. He left his position at Google because he had increasingly become aware of the existential threat AI poses for the future of the human race. Despite his warnings, most AI experts do not know or care where the real dangers may lie.
Hinton has often said, right now they’re not more intelligent than us but he seriously questions what happens when these things get more intelligent than us? USA columnist Greg Moore added fuel to Hinton’s flame when he opined It’s not hard to imagine a reality where computers control us more than we control them. The same was once applied to TVs.
Hinton states that right now they cannot reason as well as humans but he foresees the day when they can. Maybe that day has already arrived. One study compared hundreds of doctors’ letters to their patients with similarly letters contrived on Chatbot. The latter submissions were longer, more informative and had more tender sympathy than the doctors’ letters. Personally I do not believe reason is the right word. I have always believed that these Bots are only as smart as their programmers, whom I trust are real human beings.
Moore went on to expound of all the harms these things could cause humans. He easily envisions dystopian science-fiction scenarios from franchises such as the Terminator. He thinks that AI systems could stop people from exercising their free will. Since virtually every aspect of our lives leaves a digital footprint, Bots’s programmers could decide that overweight people, a drain on the health care system, could be denied their purchase of sugary drinks and snacks.
I believe Bots could someday decide that Climate Change was such a grave threat to the planet that anyone who opposed it, would have all their credit cards and bank loans cancelled. They could also make their bank and brokerage accounts disappear into the vast wasteland of space. Churches and organizations, say hospitals, which do not fall in line with the Woke Culture of Death, such as abortion, could be cut off from the internet and the digital world, making it virtually impossible for them to function in a digital society.
One of my biggest fears is that euthanasia will by necessity have to be considered health care for the elderly in the near future because of their inordinate use of medical treatments. Major surgeries for the elderly and even screening for breast and prostate cancer have already been discouraged and will someday be prohibited. I cannot forget candidate Barack Obama’s answer in 2008 during a presidential debate to a woman whose relatively spry 96-year-old aunt needed heart valve surgery. Obama dispassionately said the aunt should just take a pill.
When I saw my new urologist this year, I asked her why she did not draw my blood for my usual PSA test. She said they had stopped screening at age 70 and said I had had nearly 10 years more than was necessary. Her thinking was based on studies that said in slow growing cancers of the prostate men will literally die of something else. I think she told me that my prostate would outlive me. I later found a number of studies where many men in their seventies and eighties were dying of prostate cancer. Fortunately, my new internist will run a test every year.
One of the biggest problems, the New York Times reports, is that many AI systems can generate untruthful, politically biased and otherwise toxic information. Systems, such as GPT-4, get facts wrong and contrive information, the so-called hallucinations. As a result it can be, the experts tells us, a real problem that these companies will have trouble separating truth and fact from fiction when using them. According to the Times’ Cade Metz, in a late March edition, over 1000 business leaders, technicians and other pundits, including Tesla’s Elon Musk, signed an open letter, urging AI labs to halt development of their powerful systems for six months so that they could better understand the dangers of their technology.
As an analog to throwing up their hands in despair, many signers reverted to the old throwback. They wanted to petition the government to issue a boatload of paralyzing regulations to solve any unexpected problems that may appear on the national horizon. Others argue against any regulation because the Chinese have put no restrictions on their development of AI and we cannot let them get there first. Get where is not mentioned by these restriction naysayers.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan added a Biblical allusion to this issue. In what can be termed more of a theological viewpoint, she remembered taking her young son, who was enthralled by computers, to see Steve Jobs speak at a convention in New York 30 years ago. As she put it, a small, funny detail always gave me pause and stayed with me.
Her small detail was about Apple computer’s traditional logo, an apple. However their apple had a bite taken out of it. This made the Catholic Noonan immediately think of the sweet fruit of Eden. Jobs said the bite was added to provide definition since the logo did not look much like an apple sans the bite. Noonan was not so sure. She always thought it meant something. She attributed a deeper and even darker meaning to that first bite of the forbidden fruit. Noonan believed that maybe it was an example of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. Perhaps Jobs, an AI tech and investor, was saying something he was unaware he was saying.
Noonan theorizes the icon has always been a caution about the double-edge sword of AI. Some AI experts seem to agree that terrible things are coming while others have failed to read the signs of the times. Overall many others seem to have heeded the promise of the serpent. Noonan believes something more sinister in that developing AI is biting the apple…those creating, fueling and funding it want possibly unconsciously to be God and on some level ‘think’ they are God. In the Financial Times, tech and AI investor Ian Hogarth prophesied that an advanced AI, which he called God-like AI, could lead to the obsolescence and destruction of the human race.
Noonan believes that the future of our world cannot be left to the denizens of Silicon Valley, who think they are wise because of their special technical genius. She thinks most seem devoid of a sensible conscience. Noonan and other critics see AI as symbolic of man’s human pride and global ambition or what Nietzsche called the will to power. I call the Apple Orchard, Noonan described, AI Digital Puppet Masters, who have reprised the first taste of good and evil.
The term was introduced by Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel, The Puppet Masters in 1951. The book’s plot evoked a sense of paranoia and controlling parasites, the so-called Slugs, who represented symbols of communists in our government. Puppet Masters explored a once unique theme that has expanded beyond extraterrestrial parasites, taking over the bodies of humans and controlling them. Heinlein’s book, in effect, has begotten a franchise with sequels, prequels and spin-offs that have continued to frighten theater-goers for generations.
Popular culture has obscured the deeper meaning of what a puppet master was and how it has evolved into something sinister that manipulated humans. In the 17th century, a puppet master referred to a puppeteer. Shows, such as the Italian and the British traditional Punch and Judy and the American Kukla, Fran*** and Ollie, were the ones I am most familiar with.
Puppeteers usually worked in the background, so the term became synonymous with a shadowy, metaphorical agent of darkness, who controlled people the way the way puppeteers did by pulling their puppets’ strings. Slugs or Bots will never conquer and enslave humans but digital Puppet Masters can effectively use them as a weapon, analogous to the puppets of old where their masters could use their skills to punch, control, collectivize and ultimately enslave.
In all of the articles I have read on AI, most if not all never mentioned that human beings could act in concert, such as the FBI, CIA or even the EU, to control the world. It is my conjecture that Artificial Intelligence can be the nexus of the Deep State and the New World Order. When programmed by nefarious groups or entities, these systems have the power to undermine, not only our economy and our democratic elections, but also our entire way of living. To me this is too big a temptation for humans to ignore.
*Minow used this obvious reference T. S. Eliot’s classic poem to express the modern appearance of a culture that looks as if it has experienced a mental and cultural meltdown.
**The eponymous ill-fated boat of the cast of the sitcom, Gilligan Island was named the S.S. Minow as a rebuke to Minow’s severe criticism of their medium.
***Fran Allison was not a puppeteer but a character actress and the only one visible to their TV audience. On August 10, 1965, my plane to Chicago to join the Catholic Lay Extension crashed into Lake Michigan, killing all aboard. Fortunately for Ms. Allison and me, she was delayed and her ill-fated flight departed without her and my flight on a substitute plane was the next morning.