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Artificial Intelligence, Automation and the End of Western Thought

This blog post is a summary and analysis of the speech given by Yuval Harari at Davos in January 2020.

“The automation revolution is not a watershed that settles down again but a cascade of bigger and bigger disruptions.”

When Yuval Harari speaks, people tend to listen. Not least when it comes to the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on every walk of life from politics to biology, government and education.

His position is wide-ranging but boils down to a few essential arguments. Humanity faces three existential threats: nuclear war, ecological catastrophe and technological disruption. Of the three, technological disruption can be said to be the most threatening because it’s so poorly understood.

The greatest risk? Believing that a country can outrun its rivals in an artificial intelligence arms race. The US and China are the main competitors. On this list of the world’s top 20 tech organisations, most are based in one of these two countries. Europe has few seats at the table.

Unfounded optimism is also a danger. Automation will eliminate millions of jobs; new ones will be created. But can people learn new skills fast enough? What about a 50-year-old truck driver replaced by self-driving software? Where do they fit in a marketplace dominated by software engineers and yoga teachers?

Harari also reminds us that this isn’t a one-off event. Five years ago, only a few specialists talked about AI. But the automation-autonomy revolution isn’t a watershed moment that settles down again. It’s a cascade of bigger and bigger disruptions. In time, commentators will talk less about AI, but only because it will play a role in every walk of life. Much in the same way that most of the the world’s population can now access the Internet.

Rethinking society

This isn’t just about the future. AI forces us to rethink the economic and political foundations of society. Western liberal democracy privileges the individual over the collective will of the ruling class. The citizen is therefore authorized to make imperfect decisions when voting, eating, driving, or saving for example. The protection of such rights is enshrined to an extent in most democratic constitutions.

Can we continue to assume that the liberal conception of individual rights is the best choice for societies at all times? As AI-backed evidence mounts up, should we privilege software over our souls? The strongest argument for self-driving vehicles is that it saves lives. Do we go one step further and impose a social credit system that enables the state to gather vast amounts of data about citizens and penalise certain behaviours as we see in China today?

Harari warns against the rise of digital dictatorships that monitor its citizens all the time. With enough biotech data it becomes possible to hack the individual. A system that understands us better than ourselves, can manipulate our decisions and make them for us. No longer mysterious souls we become hackable animals. Useful, perhaps, in the delivery of better healthcare, but dangerous in the hands of dictators.

Even without dictators the ability to hack humans remains as authority shifts from humans to algorithms. Billions trust the Facebook algorithm to tell us what is new. Google tells us what is true, Netflix what we watch, and Alibaba what we buy.

In the future will they tell us where to work and who to marry? Decide whether to hire us for a job, give us a loan or determine whether a central bank should raise the interest rate? Regions, such as the EU, promise to protect citizens, empowering them to ask why they were overlooked for a role. But how helpful can this be if you receive in return a hundred pages of complex data? When we don’t understand computer decisions, we lose control over our own lives.

Grounds for optimism?

The predicament facing the world is best summed up by an interview that Harari gave to The Observer newspaper about a year ago. To be clear, I think that Harari is more of an optimist than people give him credit for, but the warning is clear. Unless countries overcome nationalism and cooperate on AI, we face a difficult and uncertain future.

“Liberalism is based on the assumption that you have privileged access to your own inner world of feelings and thoughts and choices, and nobody outside you can really understand you. This is why your feelings are the highest authority in life and also in politics and economics – the voter knows best, the customer always right.

“Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will, in practical terms it made sense because nobody could understand and manipulate your innermost feelings. The merger of biotech and infotech in neuroscience and the ability to gather enormous amounts of data on each individual and process them means we are close to the point where an external system can understand your feelings better than you.”

You can read the full transcript on the World Economic Forum website. Watch the presentation.


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