Are the computers out to get us? I mean, as silly and dramatic as the question sounds, one could argue that it is a valid fear… In the past few years alone, we as a human race have watched ourselves only accelerate the extensive and continuous progress of artificial intelligence. There is a comprehensive amount of research available that supports the notion that we (humans) have given the computer a great deal of power over our day to day comings and goings. Although we’ve created computers to service us, can it be said that we are in fact servicing them? I am reminded of the Greek mythological narrative of Prometheus, the Titan who not only created mankind, but was also mankind’s greatest benefactor in providing us with fire. Because of this, Prometheus was subjected to eternal punishment. Had it not been for Prometheus’ gift of fire, man would not be able to have progressed in the way that it did. In a way the story is a cautionary tale relaying the inherit struggle between generations, between parent and child, and ultimately, between creator and creation. We have created the computer, we have developed it in such a way that is so unique in comparison to anything any human can create ever. The hypothesis of singularity suggests that at a certain point, artificial intelligence will improve and grow itself at such an incomprehensible rate to a state that no longer requires us humans or our knowledge. It is believed that this technological singularity will be the end of the human era.
And maybe you haven’t been thinking so much about the existential threat this particular hypothesis poses, but you more than likely have considered whether or not you’ll be replaced by a machine at your job. You’ve also probably been in a situation encouraging you to studying something S.T.E.M. related because it seems that is where the money is. The threat of being taken over by machines is not a new concept, but it’s one I think we’ve been so desensitized to because of it’s prevalence in mainstream media. There’s even been a noticeable shift in the morphing of such computer antagonists from heart-less, vengeful robots into a sort of modern day succubi. Commonly mirroring the story of Frankenstein who came to immediately hate his creation, who suffered at the hands of his creation. There are a number of people who deny a possible future where machine and technology reign, stating that there is just too much uncertainty revolving around the subject, that it is only possible in the “reel” world rather than the real world.
Let’s think now about just how big a role technology plays a role in our lives. For one thing, had it not been for the Internet, the chance of you reading this piece, of me even writing this piece are infinitesimally small. For the average university student, it is rather inconceivable to get around as easy without technology. I need my laptop and the Internet to keep in touch with my professors, with my manager, with other students, with my parents, with the world. The plethora of information that is available to me on the Internet makes researching extremely easy. I mean there’s really no excuse for why I can’t be a connoisseur of something obscure; all I have to do is type in the name of the subject at the top of my search bar and at the click of my Enter-button are links to pages about the subject. The invention of the computer emerged from the goal of making complex mathematical calculations as well as making tasks easier for humans.
Eventually, we began to use computers and technology as means of both escapism and connectivity. Through social media alone, one is able to, in a way, escape from their lives and enter into a fantasy world where they have a certain level of power over their existence in this digital realm. To add to that, social media provides users with a sense of connectedness with online communities that share similar interests. It’s actually shown through recent studies that the neurochemical, dopamine, is released when we’re engaging with a positive experience on social media. Such information is used by marketing companies. There is an inorganic symbiosis occurring here with social media serving as a watering hole, social media users as base level animals, and market companies as predators taking advantage of users. That’s another thing, too: the use of the word “users” to refer to those who participate in the digital age. It suggests an addictive connotation to the way in which we interact with our computers and technology. We give a great deal of power to our devices.
We know that essentially all the data in computers can be “broken down” into ones and zeros. There are algorithms and formulas programmed into the computer that are able to process the data and in turn carry out whatever tasks the computer user demands. In The Meaning of Digital Humanities by Alan Liu, Liu goes into the work Heuser and Le-Khac did with the Correlator, which basically analyzed “seed words” from nineteenth-century novels so to find other words that are statistically correlated to those seed words. The purpose of this was to identify word cohorts of “rich, consistent semantic fields” that are “both semantically and culturally legible” in historic trends. (Liu, 413) The computer does what the two men could have done, but in a quicker and much more efficient way. With the computer though, there is a low chance of human error, although that doesn’t eliminate the possibility for an error to occur. In a similar way, the computer combs through our search history, and takes note of our frequent interactions and tasks with the computer to provide for us each a unique and personalized experience. The advertisements we’re exposed to are generated by an algorithm that feeds off of the information we feed it by being a part of this digital world and because of this we have no real control over what we’re exposed to.
Nowadays, it seems as though the computer takes on a different approach branching off of their purpose as information and communication devices into expressive tools for construction and self-expression. Paulo Blikstein’s Travels in Troy with Freire, Blikstein makes an argument for technologies potential to emancipate the human race, to provide the human race with an even greater tool for expression, in regards to education that is. Access to technology in places still new to it has been able to positively bridge the digital divide and bring about change. I think often of how popular coding has become in recent years. Soon enough, coding classes will be just as normal as typing classes were to me when I was still in grade school. The children of this century have been born in a time like no other, a time we ourselves are children to. Just now, I thought about how uncomfortably integrated social media is ingrained into babies and their development. Unlike any generation before them, the babies of this century will grow up having been completely desensitized to social media and technology.
The tasks we assign to computers have only increased in complexity leading scientists and engineers to improve it’s functions. We anthropomorphize computers, adjusting algorithms to make chat-bots give a more wholesome human interaction, for example. We type up code that makes the computer feel less like a cold, black screen and more like another human, but one that can process information a lot quicker if you know what I mean. Films like Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2015) explore fictional situations in which an AI machine was able to trick it’s human counterpart into forgetting for a brief moment that they were just as human. In the same way campfire stories are shared, I remember hearing about a test in which three AI machines (of the three either one or two of them could talk, but were never told who could talk) were asked which one of them could talk. One of them replied with something along the lines of, “I don’t know,” and it was then that the machine proved the potential for AI self-awareness. Now imagine if not only was your computer super smart, but also a smart Alec.
Who is to say that computers aren’t (going to be) out to get us some day in the future? It’s predicted that by 2029, technological singularity will be achieved. The machines will be the ones making more machines and it’ll be like when humans learned how to make more humans. Well that’s if we’re still sticking with the opening Prometheus metaphor where we are Prometheus and the computers are like the humans he created. It is unknown what kind of world that will be like because of how unique a phenomenon this is. The show Black Mirror constantly explores possible futuristic realities where technology takes on an even bigger, extremely unbearable role in human life. In season three, the episode “Playtest” covers the concept of artificial reality where a video game is fed personal information of the player so to make for a more visceral gaming experience. The game plays on the player’s senses, recreating for them their darkest fears. Eventually the player loses his sense of reality and drives him insane. This isn’t the twist of the episode though; the twist was far darker, but irrelevant to the point I’m making here about how we’ve underestimated the potential for artificial superintelligence.
In the Black Mirror episode following this, “Shut Up and Dance,” a young man gets coerced into committing a number of crimes because holding over his head is the threat of releasing a video of him masturbating. A great deal of frustration comes when we as the viewer begin to ask whether or not the crimes he’s committing are worth not letting his mum know that he masturbates. It isn’t until after he commits the final act of killing another man that we find out the one(s) who make him do all these terrible things had no plans of letting him off the hook, only providing for him the illusion of freedom. We then find out that it wasn’t just a video of him masturbating, but masturbating to child pornography. Any ounce of sympathy we had for him are thrown right back at us and we are filled with even more frustration and confusion. To top it off, they sign off with a Troll Face meme. We never find out who it was that conducted this disgusting orchestra. Based on what we know about how computers process information and “respond” to us, it could be assumed that there was no one on the other side… Not a perverted pre-teen in some random country with surprisingly good Internet access, but a computer. A computer monitoring child pornography sites, acting as a vigilante of sorts, carrying out justice in a way that seems normal based on past inputs, such as how some people conduct their immature behavior on Reddit, for example. Now though a fictional worst-case scenario, it wouldn’t be wrong for one to have a slight fear that such a scenario could manifest in their own life, especially in a post-singularity world.
So what now? Let the computers take over and join the church of Singularitarianism? Make humans immortal? Start practicing longer device cleanses? Have we reached a point we can’t turn back or even deviate from? Are we, like Prometheus, now subject to eternal damnation?