Relating With Artificial Intelligence

When technology brings seismic changes in our world, it can be very easy to get overwhelmed, to struggle to see the wood from the trees and to maintain a rational perspective.

In the last week or so, we’ve seen very clear evidence. Out of nowhere, we all (well, those who exist in the digital world!) became aware of an AI based mobile phone app that claimed to apply a filter to see what a person will look like as they age. Apparently, it had been around a while, but this time it caught on virally, even with celebrities diving in to share pictures of themselves aged. Whole sports teams got the treatment and it shot to number one free download on both Apple Appstore and Google Playstore.

Then came the hangover after the initial excesses as numerous ‘experts’ came forward to share a few facts skirted over by the over zealous users. The company owning Faceapp is Russian – that’s always good to create a few scary bogeymen. Then, they pointed out that the terms and conditions essentially meant that users were handing over absolute rights for ever in their personal photos to the company. It also led to renewed concerns and debate about other Apps like TikTok.

This whole digital universe is so new, so novel and yet so ubiquitous that people really haven’t worked out their relationships with it.  For all the privacy concerns expressed, the reality is that digital photos and our own digital representation have little or no protection already. It’s the work of seconds for a child to copy and save any photo of any person from a website, a news site or a social networking platform. Can any of us really say we ‘own’ our visual images any more? We’ve seen similar in the past with digital music and video. Young people who would have said it was plainly immoral to walk in to a shop to steal a CD or a DVD have thought nothing of downloading enormous quantities of music, film etc. So, is it really any different? These people wouldn’t walk in to your home to steal your holiday snaps you just picked up from the developers, but somehow copying and pasting or saving your photos online doesn’t feel like theft – not really.

As a society we have to be open to having the deeper debates about implications and meaning.  For example, the ‘copy and paste’ culture is already a major headache for education – but one that gets little discussion on any serious level. If people come to have a lesser view on the ownership of anything that is put out in to the digital domain, then all sorts of issues arise about the ownership, copyright and protection of the written word. Just as debates raged in the music world – if people can take your creative output, use it, enjoy it, even pass it off as their own then where is the incentive to produce new creative work? In addition, in education, if a student can cobble together an essay in 20 minutes with bits and pieces mashed together by cut and paste from a handful of websites, then what, if any, learning is happening? There is little or no engagement with the content with the result that the student has done little to establish their own knowledge or understanding. But, even in the face of software solutions (such as Turn It In) to attempt to prevent plagiarism, there are major issues about academic honesty. Yet, still today, relatively few educational institutes have engaged with the hard tasks of establishing workable principles on academic honesty, let alone establish the trust environment in which all parties accept that it’s in their own best interests not to engage in such practices.

Getting back to FaceApp, there are further issues. Especially over the last year, we’ve all been regaled with copious verbiage about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its implications in the world in the very near future. There is a serious danger that when the manifestation of AI in people’s experience is a silly face morphing software the reaction will be, “Oh, is that all we’re being told to worry about?” AI will be seen with ambivalence as something occasionally, mildly amusing and not as the behemoth that is going to sweep through almost every aspect of life like a tidal wave. People in positions of power, authority and leadership should be in deep introspection about potential implications and how they need to respond within their spheres of influence to help people to prepare for what’s ahead.

The most serious implications of AI are not somewhere uncertain out in the future. Some of them are already having an impact right now and raising challenging questions about how AI will change the nature of power in society, freedom and civil liberties and even life and death. In China (a country that assumes a greater and greater significance in the world as geopolitical power shifts to Asia from the West) we are seeing extensive use of AI in the areas populated by Uighurs. These are indigenous people in a large region of China who identify themselves as muslim. They’ve long suffered persecution and unfair treatment. But today, AI is being harnessed to spy on them, to find ‘reasons’ to collect potentially millions of them in concentration camps for ‘re-education.’ They are essentially being indoctrinated to become obedient and compliant citizens of China who will give up any inclinations to see themselves as different.

Elsewhere in China there are forms of experiments being carried out to harness AI as a major vehicle in programmes of manipulation and control of the citizens. People are tracked, monitored and identified with vast arrays of face recognising cameras. The system identifies those who “do good” and gives them incentives and rewards. Those identified “doing bad” can be punished in all kinds of ways. On a massive scale it amounts to a process of harnessing technology for mind control and the creation of a subservient, compliant and passive citizenry who can be controlled in almost every aspect of their lives. Of course, there are all sorts of questions about what gets defined as good or bad behaviour, and by whom. This is reality and once it’s been harnessed in one country there’s no reason why governments elsewhere can’t adopt at least some more subtle elements to increase their control and power over the population.

The rapid increase in use of AI is going to change the fundamental nature of the relationship between man and machines, especially in the arena of work. Vast swathes of jobs will disappear – most notably those that require precise actions to carry out predictable and consistent actions with little variability. As yet, society has no real answers for how to retrain those displaced from work so as to remain economically productive. In vast parts of Asia and Africa in the last 30 years millions have been lifted out of poverty by the shift of millions of jobs of low and semi-skilled nature. In this time birth rates have remained high and so, for example, in India there is still unemployment conservatively well over 10%. The jobs that were flowing to the East are the very jobs that AI is likely to undermine. As yet, we still have no simple answers for how society will respond to these issues.

One final word on FaceApp. It doesn’t seem to have mattered very much to anyone that the software actually seems, as far as I can see, to be useless and poor in what it claims to do. Does anyone recognise the person in the picture below?

Faceapp copy

No, I don’t recognise him either. Nor, I’m sure would my mother or any other relatives. Which is kind of odd considering this is what FaceApp believes I looked like when i was younger!

So, if it can be so wildly wrong in figuring what a person looked like when younger, why should we take at all seriously what they predict we’ll look like when older in the future?

So, all just a silly storm in a Russian chipped teacup? Let’s not get diverted from the real issues of AI by such nonsense.

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