Primed for the ultimate AI disconnection

May 21, 2023
Artificial Intelligence (AI) Automation

Time to leave for planet Zog. That’s what came to mind recently I as pondered an article about young Japanese men and female holograms.

It seems that growing numbers of disaffected and alienated Japanese men prefer to engage with stereotypical holograms rather than entertain the idea of a real-life relationship. And it’s not only sexual congress they’re after, although quite how that works, I have no idea. Apparently, they want uncomplicated, predictable, slavish company, where they, the blokes, set the agenda, and the hologram duly obliges. It’s the digital version of mid-1950s patriarchy, but instead of a rehashed Stepford wife we now have a programmed chatbot.

Exactly why such things have occurred is hard to say, although it has much to do with the nature of particular societies and the current obsession with all things AI. Modernity, masculinity, alienation, isolation and cultural dystopia are part of the explanatory mix, all aided and abetted by the increasingly unhinged, profit-hungry world of corporatised AI.

So-called AI – it depends what you mean by ‘intelligence’, right? – is now employed for a wide range of purposes, some of them good, many of them bizarre, and often dangerous. Take for example the digital ‘deep fake’ appropriation of body parts of the rich and famous that are grafted onto pornographic images, replete with moans and groans. Or the digital hijacking of voices to deliver online speeches that never occurred. Or the use of creative AI to manufacture music, plays, video games and art. Or the AI apps that allow students to submit digitally manufactured essays, teachers to draft lesson plans and content, and journalists to submit computer crafted news articles.

Everyone is getting in on the AI extravaganza. Big tech companies (some with revenue larger than nations states) are eyeing all manner of profit generating possibilities, investing trillions in AI research and development. Various militaries are embracing the supposed benefits of AI concocted battlespace strategies as well as robotic military personnel capable of killing with gusto, minus the pesky human traits of conscience and trauma.

An additional worry is the potential for the wholesale appropriation of human knowledge by the world’s leading big tech companies, while hiding behind unregulated and proprietorial walls. These companies already have an enormous and growing influence on governments and societies more generally. The mining of metadata and its various applications, including the manipulation of elections, and increasing forays into our private lives, tell us where all this is heading.

Outgoing Google AI ‘godfather’, Geoffrey Hinton, recently warned of the “existential risk” posed by such technologies and the fact that AI generated information is “able to produce lots of text automatically so you can get lots of very effective spambots. It will allow authoritarian leaders to manipulate their electorates, things like that.”

Had celebrated British scientist Stephen Hawking been alive today, he might have said “I told you so”. His alarm about emerging AI technologies was terrifyingly prescient. “The development of full artificial intelligence”, he argued, “could spell the end of the human race…. It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded”. Hinton seemed to confirm this, noting that digital intelligence was far more potent than bio intelligence, or as Hawking pointed out in 2016, “…computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence — and exceed it”. It’s already happening.

Interestingly, as recently reported in ABCs Four Corners, the era of ‘generative’ AI, which allows for the use of existing text, images and audio to create new expressive modalities, is, according to tech watchers, “an unfettered experiment” which treats humans like “guinea pigs”, and “not even the creators know where this will head”. It’s the fear of autonomous development that most troubled Hawking when in 2017 he speculated that, “… someone will design AI that replicates itself. This will be a new form of life that will outperform humans”. What Hawking feared is now here – it’s there in the “synthetic companions” of computer-generated chatbots who co0pt and develop traits that mimic and automate human agency.

Worryingly, generative AI is now widespread and seemingly unstoppable. It has been legitimated by corporate CEOs and tech heads as good for humanity, enhancing life, creativity, health and wellbeing. But there’s a problem with this, as Naomi Klein points out in a recent article in The Guardian. For the utilitarian good to occur, she says, “these technologies would need to be deployed inside a vastly different economic and social order than our own, one that had as its purpose the meeting of human needs and the protection of the planetary systems that support all life”.

But we don’t live in that kind of world, do we? As Klein concludes, “…in the reality of hyper-concentrated power and wealth, AI – far from living up to all those utopian hallucinations – is much more likely to become a fearsome tool of further dispossession and despoilation”. The fact is that AI technologies – surely one of the most life-altering developments ever – are subject to neither to rigorous regulation or agreed ethical standards.

While we might stress over some of the implications, say, of Metaverse, intrusive cyber security regimes, and the potential horrors of transhumanism, few have linked the rise of AI to one of the great tragedies of our age: sleepwalking into mass human disconnection. You see this routinely in public spaces when, say, you’re on a bus or train and just about everyone is glued to their mobile phones. It all looks innocuous enough, but screen centredness of this sort eschews phatic conversations, meaningful exchanges, banter, laugher and even the early stages of romantic love – all best experienced, I and others contend, through the lived, embodied, directly personal relationships in the here and now. The digital world neutralises much of this in favour of virtual images, truncated texts, or dot-pointed and quickly absorbed infotainment. Economists often talk about ‘opportunity costs’ that arise when certain choices are made in trade and commerce – every decision forgoes other possibilities. The same applies to how we decide to engage with the world around us; something very human is lost when we align too much with the virtual.

It’s arguable, of course, that existing digital technologies have opened up some interesting and exciting possibilities to enhance aspects of human life, but they also come with serious downsides. The evidence is out not only that digital ‘hyperconnectivity’ can create harmful, self-defeating illusions of human connection, but also that it further entrenches the individualism and atomisation that is so prevalent in modern life. It’s often said of ‘the West’, that despite all the nonsense about hyperconnectivity, we are among the loneliest generations ever, often living alone, bereft of meaningful human connection and suffering a growing lack of empathy and attentiveness.

But that’s only part of the story. The metropolitanisation of the world – meaning that most of the planet’s population now live in cities – renders us increasingly alienated and alone, and ever more dependent on what turbo capitalism has to offer. It also means more time in front of screens, turning us into online consumers prey to the ever-present gaze of surveillance capitalism. In effect, we’re becoming enculturated digital denizens at the mercy of data harvesting agencies.

But it’s the evisceration of the commons and communitarianism, so essential to what Tim Hollo refers to as ‘living democracy’, that should most concern us. First, at a time when we need social solidarities to cohere around the common purpose of responding to and surviving ecological breakdown, societies are becoming more and more fragmented. Second, in a world where civil societies are already facing serious challenges, including the rise of ethno-nationalism and demagogic tyranny, social disconnection serves to weaken our collective capacity to participate in the democratic process. This danger was identified by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism in which she attributed the rise of Nazism, in part, to the deliberate erosion of social solidarities. In many western societies, the atomisation of populations with the technological means to receive targeted AI messaging presents the most frightening prospect for the further dissolution of the democratic process.

Without the necessary knowledge or awareness to critically dissect the AI onslaught,  we are about to enter or are already in, a very scary world of AI hyper reality.

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