andrian_kreye's picture
Editor-at-large of the German Daily Newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich
A John Henry Moment

Beyond the realms of serious science and technology the popular debates about machines that think have been high masses of a new mythology. There are two main dogmas. One is the hope that a moment of singularity will awaken a synthetic spirit superior to the human mind. The other is the fear that thinking machines will dominate and ultimately destroy mankind. Both distract from the fact that at the heart of the debate is a very real John Henry moment.

In the folk tale of the late 19th century the mythical steel driving man John Henry dies beating a steam powered hammer during a competition to drill blast holes into a West Virginian mountainside. White collar and knowledge workers now face a race against being outperformed by machines driven by artificial intelligence. In this case AI is mainly a synonym for new levels of mainly digital productivity. Which is of course not quite as exciting as either waiting for the moment of singularity or the advent of doom. At the same time the reality of AI is not quite as comforting as the realization that machines, if properly handled, will always serve their masters.

Dystopian views of AI as popularized by movies and novels are just misleading. Those debates are rarely about science and technology. They tend to be mostly humans debating the nature of themselves. Most of the endless variations of imaginary machine rule tend to project the fear of inherent evil and cruelty into machines as proxies for the age-old uncontrollable urges of self-empowerment and unlimited progress.

Elevating the AI debate to hopes with theological dimensions is turning optimism about technological progress into a salvation theory. As confirmed again and again the likelihood of a synthetic spirit is nil. Artificial intelligence might be the most rapid advancement of complexity in science and technology. So far it still mimics human nature and it will remain doing so. For one it lacks time. Human intelligence is the product of evolution. AI does not have the luxury of a trial and error phase of billions of years. To believe in a coming moment of singularity, when AI transcends human control and advances to surpass human intelligence is nothing more than the belief in a technological rapture. This might be a popular belief in insular worlds like Silicon Valley. AI reality is different. And it's here.

AI has already touched billions of people in profound ways. So far the main impact of AI is the comfort of an ever increasing number of digital aids. Calculating consumer choices, behavior patterns and even market shifts might still belong more to the realm of statistics than intelligent life. Still even these crude forms of AI should neither be over- or underestimated, even if the real John Henry moment has not yet arrived. Working masses have always been replaceable by efficiency measures or cheaper labor. And no labor is cheaper and more efficient than the one by machines. Just like the steam hammer in John Henry's tale most digital tools will outperform humans in highly specialized tasks. So of course there will still be demand of high-skills and outstanding talent. No computer will ever replace a scientist, an artist, an innovator. It's the mid-level white collar or knowledge worker who will fall behind.

As AI's efficiencies and skill sets increase, they also become tools of power. The tedious skills of surveillance, warfare and torture can already be performed much better by an entity that is neither prone to emotions, conflicted values or fatigue. Still the danger that hostile or even lethal machines will develop an evil consciousness and turn against mankind is nil. It is institutions and organizations that will use them for whatever benign or sinister objective.

There is no need for a superior intelligence to turn abstract debates about AI into very real questions of power, values and societal changes. Technology can initiate and advance historical shifts. It will never be the shift itself. The John Henry moment of the 21st century will neither be heroic nor entertaining. There are no grand gestures with which white collar and knowledge workers can go down fighting. There will be no folk heroes dying in the office park. Today's John Henry will merely fade into a sad statistic. Undoubtedly calculated by a skillfully thinking machine.