Keeping a clear mind about the potential downsides of AI

Keeping a clear mind about the potential downsides of AI

Keeping a clear mind about the potential downsides of AI

It’s not hard to grab your 15 minutes of attention in the mass media. All you need to do is argue that that the latest technological mania is going to ruin the world.

Alarmist warnings about artificial intelligence (AI) seem to be everywhere right now. I’m a bit jaded by all this sensationalism. Earlier this year I published my thoughts on this topic, in which I outlined the principal overheated arguments being made against AI and its data-driven cousin: cognitive computing. If you watched the otherwise excellent October 9 “CBS Sixty Minutes” episode on AI, you saw many of those arguments rehashed.

Now I’m seeing a new theme in the anti-AI backlash: the notion that growing reliance on data-driven cognitive computing will turn users into gibbering idiots. That’s essentially the thesis of Bernard Marr’s recent Forbes article, as flagged in the headline “Is Stupidity A Dangerous Side Effect Of Big-Data-Driven AI?” In the article itself, Marr softens that tone just a wee bit, using the term “de-skill” to refer to the process under which automating cognitive functions may cause people to forget how to handle them unassisted. But it’s clear that Marr believes the technology risks dumbing down AI-assisted tasks to the point at which people may become passive appendages to the machine (or, at the very least, to machine learning algorithms).

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My feeling is that this is more of a red herring than a real issue. The fact that AI has made a specific mental task easier doesn’t imply that you, the person whose cognitive load is being lightened, are in danger of becoming an imbecile. We’ve been living with high-tech cognition offloaders—such as spreadsheets and electronic calculators–for the past couple of generations, but those don’t seem to have spawned mass mathematical illiteracy. People still need to master the same core concepts—addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, etc.–in order to use these tools correctly.


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