john_markoff's picture
Pulitzer Prize-winning Reporter, The New York Times; Author, Whole Earth
Our Masters, Slaves or Partners?


Hegel wrote that in the relationship between master and slave both are dehumanized. That insight touched a wide range of thinkers from Marx to Buber and today it is worth remembering.

While there is no evidence that the world is on the cusp of machines that think in a human sense, there is also little question that in an Internet-connected world, artificial intelligence will soon imitate much of what humans do both physically and intellectually.

So how will we relate to our ever-more talented simulacrums?

We have already begun to spend a significant fraction of our waking hours either interacting with other humans through the prism of computers and computer networks, or directly interacting with human-like machines, either in fantasy and video games or in a plethora of computerized assistance systems that range from so-called FAQ bots that offer textual responses to typed questions, to the human-like interactions of software avatars.

Will these AI avatars be our slaves, our assistants, our colleagues, or some mixture of all three? Or more ominously, will they become our masters? 

The very notion of thinking about robots and artificial intelligences in terms of social relationships may initially seem implausible. However, given that we tend to anthropomorphize our machines even when they have minimal powers, it will be an undeniable reality as they become autonomous. 

Conversational computers are emerging that are all too human. Consequently the goal of the designers of future robots should be to create colleagues rather than servants. The design goal should be to build a program that acts as a musical accompanist, rather than a slave. 

If we fail, history offers a disturbing precedent. Building future intelligent "assistants" might only recapitulate the problem the Romans faced in letting their Greek slaves do their thinking for them. Before long those in power were unable to think independently.

Perhaps we have already begun to slip down a similar path. For example, there is growing evidence that reliance on GPS for directions and for correction of navigational errors hinders our ability to remember and reason spatially, generally useful survival skills.⁠

That hints at a second great challenge—the risk of ceding individual control over everyday decisions to a cluster of ever-more sophisticated algorithms. 

For today's younger generation, the world has been turned upside down. Rather than deploying an automaton to free them to think big thoughts, have close relationships, and to exercise their individuality, creativity and freedom, they look to their smartphones for guidance. What began as Internet technologies that made it possible for individuals to share preferences efficiently, has rapidly transformed itself into a growing array of data-hungry algorithms that make decisions for us.

Now the Internet seamlessly serves up life-directions. They might be little things like what's the best nearby place for Korean barbecue based on the Internet's increasingly complete understanding of your individual wants and needs, or big things like an Internet service arranging your marriage. Not just the food, gifts and flowers, but your partner, too.

The lesson is that the software engineers, AI researchers, roboticists and hackers who are the designers of these future systems, have the power to reshape society.

A little over a century ago, Thorstein Veblen wrote an influential critique of the turn-of-the century industrial world, The Engineers and the Price System. Because of the power and influence of industrial technology, he believed that political power would flow to engineers, whose deep knowledge of technology would be transformed into control of the emerging industrial economy. 

It certainly didn't work out that way. Veblen was speaking to the Progressive Era, looking for a middle ground between Marxism and capitalism. Perhaps his timing was off, but his basic point, as echoed a half century later at the dawn of the computer era by Norbert Wiener, may yet be proven correct.

Perhaps Veblen wasn't wrong, he was merely premature. Today, the engineers who are designing the artificial intelligence-based programs and robots will have a tremendous influence over how we will use them. As computer systems are woven more deeply into the fabric of everyday life, the tension between intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence has become increasingly visible. 

At the dawn of the computing age Wiener had a clear sense of the significance of the relationship between humans and smart machines. He saw the benefits of automation in eliminating human drudgery, but he also clearly saw the possibility of the subjugation of humanity. The intervening decades have only sharpened the dichotomy he first identified. 

This is about us, about humans and the kind of world we will create. It's not about the machines, no matter how brilliant they become. 

I, for one, will welcome neither our robot overlords or slaves.