As is so often the case in our modern buzzword culture, the phrase artificial intelligence has grown well beyond the confines of what it is, and is instead often thought of in terms of what it could be. There’s nothing wrong with maintaining a healthy sense of a technology’s potentially dark extremes, but many experts contend that the gloomy predictions of a Terminator-like apocalypse levied by people like Elon Musk are not only a few decades premature, but ultimately make too many assumptions about the ways AI could be employed — or, for that matter, is already being employed.
Whether you realize it or not, artificial intelligence likely already plays an active role in your day to day life. Dating apps like Bumble use it to ban images of firearms and shirtless guys on their platforms — they certainly don’t employ people to enforce their prohibition on guns (of the steel or the flesh variety), they rely on machine learning to identify and flag images containing banned material.
This same method, utilized by Yelp to differentiate between pictures of hot dogs and corn muffins, is at the center of the controversial defense contract Google has been under fire for taking on. Google wants to help sift through drone footage and flag elements of import, while the industry surrounding them argues that they’re making targeting systems for the sort of autonomous weapons systems that exist only in Elon Musk’s nightmares.
If you’ve ever been to Zillow.com looking for a new home, you may have noticed that each building, plot of land or apartment offers you a “Zestimate” of the property’s value. No, Zillow doesn’t employ an army of realtors tasked with scouting every building in America. They too rely on AI to produce those figures. Ever take an Uber from the airport? Surprise, it uses machine learning to minimize wait times, adjust prices and even add other passengers that would minimize detours along your route.
Use the spam filter on your email? Flown in a commercial aircraft? Deposited a check using your smart phone? How about just logging into Facebook (or literally any other social media platform)?
Literally every one of these activities involves the use of AI or a subset of the field. These functions aren’t managed by hand, they’re managed through algorithms specially designed to streamline our lives and offer services that would otherwise be too labor intensive to offer.
Even the phone you may be reading this article on uses a facet of AI (computational linguistics) to understand you when using voice commands. The artificial intelligence revolution isn’t a threat looming in the dark and stormy distance, it’s a quiet helper that snuck in when you weren’t looking a decade ago.
All of this isn’t to say that we can disregard concerns about the future of artificial intelligence: there’s a wisdom in prudence, after all. Eventually, we could see a day when AI controlled combatants engage with one another in war zones not unlike we see drones in use today but even that seemingly terrifying future theater may not be all that bad. Like self-driving cars, semi-autonomous and even autonomous war fighters of the future would be tasked with making hard decisions about life or death, but may even find themselves more capable of doing so in the heat of the moment, free from human anxieties, fears, or clouded judgement.
Artificial Intelligence is, at a cultural level, already met with fear and disdain, but at a practical level, we’ve already embraced it as a common facet of our everyday lives. As the technology continues to advance, so too will our perceptions of it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should do away with that fear altogether.
AI may be more a help than a hindrance, and the benefits of its use will undoubtedly grow as systems develop, but — just in case guys like Elon Musk are right — it never hurts to include an off switch.
Image courtesy of Pixabay