Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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Getting a bit too smart for our own good

On this day 212 years ago, the first major Luddite riot took place in Britain.

It involved the destruction of automated textile equipment by rioting framework knitters, who were motivated by the not-unreasonable fear that their hard-earned craft would soon be supplanted by cheaper, more efficient machines.

This event marked the beginning of a movement that became a region-wide rebellion lasting five years.

You may have noticed that [much like King Canute failed to hold back the tides] the movement didn’t exactly stop technological innovation in the textile industry in its tracks – or in any other part of our civilization.

However, it gave us the word “Luddite” to describe those opposed to industrialisation, automation, computerisation, or new technologies in general.

It’s usually deployed as a term of abuse or contempt – after all, what kind of ignoramus would reject all the shiny evidence that technology provides of our inarguable human progress? Doesn’t doing so merely declare one’s desire to “live and die like a medieval peasant”?

Which is fair enough – up to a point.

Like almost all absolutist schools of thought, it’s hard to defend a complete rejection of the many benefits born of technological advancements.

But it’s surely equally silly to wholeheartedly support the world view of the Luddite’s ideological antithesis – the “technophile”, whose default setting appears to be uncritical enthusiasm about anything that comes with a “state of the art” sticker slapped on it.

It’s not like it takes any effort at all to come up with a list of innovations that have had less-than-ideal outcomes – often unintended.

And yet it’s apparent that our society’s presumptive position is that of the technophile.

Seldom, if ever, is there any public discussion about a soon-to-be-unleashed technology that seriously considers whether we should, just because we can.

The current stampede towards the introduction of artificial intelligence [AI] into every aspect of our lives is a prime example of this.

Billionaire tech bro Elon Musk has been expressing his fear for years about how the development of AI will almost certainly result in what’s referred to as “the singularity”.

At the risk of over-simplifying the matter, “the singularity” is basically the plotline of ‘The Terminator’ movie franchise – at some point in the future, the theory goes, the intelligence of AI will surpass that of humans and the newly self-aware machines will [understandably enough] quickly conclude we’re surplus to requirements.

Cue a collective “oops” from the starry-eyed technophiles who somehow didn’t anticipate this [or perhaps mistook the predictions of dystopian fiction for a business plan], quickly followed by an efficient, automated cull of our species.

Less than a decade ago, as I recall, Musk was warning this unhappy event looked likely to occur around 2050 or so.

I note he’s recently recalibrated his calculations and sees the singularity’s schedule as having moved up to the next couple of years.

Musk – who politically leans towards libertarianism and has a company, Neuralink, that’s actively developing AI – is calling for urgent regulation of the technology. Perhaps we should heed him – and consider rehabilitating our view of Luddites while we’re at it?

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