By KIM BELLARD
I feel like I’ve written about AI a lot lately, but there’s so much happening in the field. I can’t keep up with the various leading entrants or their impressive successes, but three essays on the implications of what we’re seeing struck me: Bill Gates’ The Age of AI Has Begun, Thomas Friedman’s Our New Promethean Moment, and You Can Have the Blue Pill or the Red Pill, and We’re Out of Blue Pills by Yuval Harari, Tristan Harris, and Aza Raskin. All three essays speculate that we’re at one of the big technological turning points in human history.
We’re not ready.
The subtitle of Mr. Gates’ piece states: “Artificial intelligence is as revolutionary as mobile phones and the Internet.” Similarly, Mr. Friedman recounts what former Microsoft executive Craig Mundie recently told him: “You need to understand, this is going to change everything about how we do everything. I think that it represents mankind’s greatest invention to date. It is qualitatively different — and it will be transformational.”
Mr. Gates elaborates:
The development of AI is as fundamental as the creation of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the Internet, and the mobile phone. It will change the way people work, learn, travel, get health care, and communicate with each other. Entire industries will reorient around it. Businesses will distinguish themselves by how well they use it.
Mr. Friedman is similarly awed:
This is a Promethean moment we’ve entered — one of those moments in history when certain new tools, ways of thinking or energy sources are introduced that are such a departure and advance on what existed before that you can’t just change one thing, you have to change everything. That is, how you create, how you compete, how you collaborate, how you work, how you learn, how you govern and, yes, how you cheat, commit crimes and fight wars.
Professor Harari and colleagues are more worried than awed, warning: “A.I. could rapidly eat the whole of human culture — everything we have produced over thousands of years — digest it and begin to gush out a flood of new cultural artifacts.” Transformational isn’t always beneficial.
Each of the articles points out numerous ways AI can help – and in some cases, already is helping – solve important problems. Even though Professor Harari and his colleagues are the most concerned, they admit: “A.I. indeed has the potential to help us defeat cancer, discover lifesaving drugs and invent solutions for our climate and energy crises. There are innumerable other benefits we cannot begin to imagine.”
All three essays, in fact, reference how AI could help revolutionize health care in particular; Mr. Gates devotes an entire section of his essay to how AI will improve health and medical care, while Mr. Friedman discusses at length AI’s role in understanding protein folding, which has crucial roles in drug discovery.
Exciting times. Peter Lee, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President, Research, tweeted:
Of course, not every industry is going to be equally ready. Take healthcare. Joyce Lee, M.D. (aka Doctor as Designer) bemoaned:
Healthcare is trying to use 21st century technology in a system with 19th century institutions (e.g., hospitals) and 20th century regulations (e.g., telehealth licensing restrictions). AI is going to be ready for healthcare long before healthcare is ready for it.
The problem is, of course, much bigger than healthcare. As Mr. Friedman laments: “Are we ready? It’s not looking that way: We’re debating whether to ban books at the dawn of a technology that can summarize or answer questions about virtually every book for everyone everywhere in a second.”
Professor Harari and colleagues are even more doubtful: “Social media was the first contact between A.I. and humanity, and humanity lost.” And that was with what they correctly call “primitive” AI; imagine, they say:
What would it mean for humans to live in a world where a large percentage of stories, melodies, images, laws, policies and tools are shaped by nonhuman intelligence, which knows how to exploit with superhuman efficiency the weaknesses, biases and addictions of the human mind — while knowing how to form intimate relationships with human beings?
The U.S. did a terrible with recognizing how automation – more than outsourcing – took away hundreds of thousands of factory jobs over the past few decades, and we’re even more ill-prepared for when AI comes for all those white collar and “creative” jobs. Such as in healthcare.
More than jobs are at stake, according to Professor Harari and colleagues:
The time to reckon with A.I. is before our politics, our economy and our daily life become dependent on it. Democracy is a conversation, conversation relies on language, and when language itself is hacked, the conversation breaks down, and democracy becomes untenable.
No, we’re not ready, especially, as Mr. Gates says: “Finally, we should keep in mind that we’re only at the beginning of what AI can accomplish. Whatever limitations it has today will be gone before we know it.” Professor Harari and colleagues go even further: “We have summoned an alien intelligence. We don’t know much about it, except that it is extremely powerful and offers us bedazzling gifts but could also hack the foundations of our civilization.”
AI is not like just a faster computer. It is not even like the introduction of the PC or the smartphone. This is, as the above authors have said, potentially more like mastery of fire, use of the wheel, development of the steam engine, or the advent of man-made electricity. AI will change society as we’ve known it, in ways we can’t predict.
All three essays are dubious that market forces alone are going to result in AI that has the best outcomes for society, as opposed to for a select few. Mr. Gates’ main priority is: “The world needs to make sure that everyone—and not just people who are well-off—benefits from artificial intelligence.” To do that, Mr. Friedman believes: “We are going to need to develop what I call “complex adaptive coalitions” — where business, government, social entrepreneurs, educators, competing superpowers and moral philosophers all come together to define how we get the best and cushion the worst of A.I.”
But we don’t have the luxury of time. Professor Harari and colleagues urge: “The first step is to buy time to upgrade our 19th-century institutions for an A.I. world and to learn to master A.I. before it masters us.”
I’m not sure our technology obtuse legislators or our for-profit orientation are ready for any of that. So have fun playing with GPT-4 or Bard, but this is not a game. AI’s implications are world-changing.
Kim is a former marketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.