Does AI spell doom or boom?

Advancements in AI have caused a great amount of debate online. Is AI the next invention to propel humanity forward? Or does it spell certain doom for us as a species? The answer depends on our choices in how we use it.

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AI can be kind of freaky, but it’s still technology

There’s been a lot of buzz about AI recently, especially following the release of OpenAI’s new GPT-4o model. The demonstrations of this new model were met with excitement by some, and dread by others. I think these two responses give a great overview of the two major groups involved in the AI debate.

You've got two main camps , and honestly, they both miss the mark. On one side, you have the doomers who are convinced that AI is poses an existential risk — that one day we will become subservient to AI (or worse). On the other hand, you have the eternal optimists, the accelerationists who see the concerns others have about AI as little more than speed bumps on the road to progress. They believe there's no way—or at least a very slim chance—that AI could create serious, extinction-level risks. Rather, they only really see the upside to AI and want to accelerate progress toward its global implementation as quickly as possible.

The accelerationists look at the history of technological progress—the printing press, the airplane, and the computer—and they assume that because technological advancement has historically been good that it must always be good. The doomers, on the other hand, cry out “This time it’s different! This time it really does pose a massive risk!”

I think both sides are wrong. It's not about finding a middle ground where AI is a little good and a little bad. Instead, AI's impact will depend on how we use it. No duh, right? But I mean this beyond the tautology of “using AI for good is good and using AI for bad is bad”. Rather, the goodness of AI should instead be measured by what it augments: effort or results.

Let me explain

When people think of automation and AI, a couple different scenarios come to mind. Maybe you think of Terminator, and fear a Skynet like superintelligence wiping out humans. Or maybe instead you think of Wall-E, where humans have fully surrendered their productive capacity to machines, choosing to laze around because the robots do everything for them.

But these aren’t really historically accurate representations of technological advancement. History shows that new technologies usually enhance our abilities rather than make us give up our agency. From looms and typewriters to assembly lines and computer programs, still put in effort but allocate our labor more efficiently get greater results.

Imagine a scale. On one end, you have the weight of effort and technology combined. On the other end, you have “results”, which depending on the context can mean anything from number of widgets produced to quality of writing created.

Any time we experience a technological leap forward, the size & weight of “Technology” increases on the scale. To account for this, we can either reduce our effort to achieve the same outcome:

Or we can maintain our efforts with the new technology and attain results that were previously unattainable.

The question is not whether technological advancement is good; we know it is. The question instead is whether we should apply the same level of effort in new contexts to better leverage the new technology, or to let the technological advancement lighten our workload so we can live a life of leisure. In almost every scenario, I would argue that the former is the wiser choice.

The problem, therefore, doesn’t arise out of technological advancement itself. Rather, the problem arises when we use AI to reduce our effort instead of increasing our output. If we focus on driving value and keep putting in the same amount of effort, we can get a lot of good out of AI.

Calculators or cars?

To give an example, consider the calculator. When calculators first became mass produced, there was fear that students would stop learning mathematics.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, math education took significant steps forward. More students than ever were mathematically proficient, with the largest gains coming in the amount of students taking advanced math classes like precalculus, trigonometry, and calculus.

We still apply the same level of effort in the field of mathematics, but calculators and statistical programming languages have significantly expanded the understanding of the field as a whole.

But it’s not always sunshine and rainbows.

Consider the automobile.

The invention and mass production of cars was a massive leap forward for our ability as a species to get from point A to point B. In America, the creation of the Federal Highway System expanded the freedom of movement that we enjoy. We could put the same amount of effort into travel and reach far greater distances.

But there’s a dark side to cars.

Over the years, we haven’t just used cars to get from city to city; we’ve also increasingly developed our cities around the automobile. The result has been the reduction in walkability of our cities, and an increased reliance on cars to get the same distance that used to otherwise be achievable on foot.

This has made America a far less physically active country than our European counterparts, and the results have been quite disastrous for the health of the average American.

The key issue is whether people see technology as an excuse to exert less effort or as a tool to push forward.

We’re already seeing early decisions being made about which path to take in the business sector. In the marketing field, we’re seeing a slew of layoffs of graphic designers as companies—and even design agencies!—replace designers with various AI programs.

This is cause for concern.

This doesn’t just mean that some designers lost their jobs; it also means we have given up on advancement in the field of graphic design.

As we use AI to replace our efforts in a given field of study, we signal to each other that we no longer consider that field worth mastering. We no longer consider that field worthy of research, of growth, of innovation.

AI isn’t yet sentient. Who knows if it is even capable of achieving true sentience. Because of this, it can’t innovate in perpetuity on its own. AI is trained on human data. That means that it’s probably smarter and more capable than most single humans, but it is not even close to smarter or more capable than all of humanity.

It cannot yet innovate to the extent that it can put a man on the moon. It doesn’t yet have the ability to put a square peg in a round hole when lives are at stake:

AI is a valuable tool. But it’s only valuable if we use it to push forward and not sit back on our heels. The spirit of discovery that took us to the moon and led us to discover the Higgs boson should guide us in the age of AI.

We should also be thinking about the next generation and what this means for raising them. The growth of social media caught many parents by surprise, leading to many in my generation learning social interaction from chat rooms and Myspace rather than their healthier, real-world analogues. The mass adoption of the iPad caught many parents off guard, leading to a generation of kids raised by tablets.

We can’t let AI take the place of intentional effort exerted on the world around us, whether that world exists in the office or in the household.

AI can be a great tool, but we have to be its masters and not its subjects. That’s a choice we get to make. Today and every other day.

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