Print Edition - 2019-02-20  |  The Guardian

Wake up, humanity!

  • Technological progress is not compulsory—we can choose to call a halt
- Steven Poole

Feb 20, 2019-

When is the future no longer the future? Only a decade ago, air travel seemed to be moving ineluctably towards giant planes, or “superjumbos”. But last week Airbus announced it will cease manufacturing its A380, the world’s fattest passenger jet, as current trends favour smaller and more fuel-efficient craft. Progress changed course. A more vivid reminder of lost dreams will come in a few weeks: 2 March marks the 50th anniversary of the maiden flight of Concorde. Once upon a time, all aviation was going to be supersonic. But sometimes, the future is cancelled.

What if what we think is going to be the future right now is cancelled in its turn? We are supposedly on an unstoppable path towards driverless vehicles, fully automated internet-connected “smart homes”, and godlike artificial intelligence—but, then, we’ve been promised flying cars for half a century, and they are still (allegedly) just around the corner. We live in a time when technological change is portrayed as an inexorable, impersonal force: we’d better learn how to surf the tsunami or drown. But as a society, we always have a choice about which direction we take next. And sometimes we make the wrong decision.

For one thing, history is full of technological marvels that were abandoned for reasons that were only reassessed much later. To most people in the late 19th century, when fleets of electric taxis operated in London and Manhattan, the electric car was clearly going to win out over the filthy petrol-driven alternative. But then vast oil reserves were discovered in America, and the future went into reverse. Until, in the late 20th century, global warming and advances in battery technology made electric cars seem like a good idea again. Similarly, vinyl records have enjoyed a major resurgence in the age of the MP3: not necessarily because they are an objectively better sonic format, but because it turned out that people liked owning their culture as physical objects.

Just as we resurrect ideas from the past, we also have the power to bury ideas in the present—whether for business reasons, like Airbus, or for the wider public good. Technology isn’t just something that happens to us; it’s something we can decide to build and to use, or not. Should we, for example, allow anyone to make inheritable changes in the DNA of humans? One of the inventors of the modern gene-editing method Crispr, Jennifer Doudna, thinks not: she has called for a moratorium on such “germline” editing, because of the potentially disastrous consequences. Many thinkers on machine intelligence, meanwhile—led by the philosopher Nick Bostrom—suggest that the supposedly sci-fi scenario of a conscious AI escaping its box and taking over the world represents such an enormous, existential threat to humanity that we ought to be taking steps right now to prevent it happening.

Not much less alarming, and far closer, is the moment when ‘deep fakes’—computer-generated pictures and video—become indistinguishable from the real thing. The dream is that you can make a video in which, say, Jacob Rees-Mogg breaks down in tears and admits he doesn’t understand half of the long words he uses, and this would be impossible to tell from an authentic TV broadcast. Satisfying as it would be to shame some individuals in this way, the wider result would be a total corrosion of trust, not only in news media but in documentary evidence of many kinds.

So, as work continues apace on deep fakes, we are sleepwalking towards a media dystopia in which nothing at all can be trusted, and the only people to benefit will be authoritarian leaders who insist on their own fantastical realities. Therefore, it’s hard not to think that researchers building deep-fake technology right now are actively working, whether they realise it or not, to destroy liberal democracy. Should we just sit back and let them, because, you know, technology will always happen anyway?

We should not, and it’s time to reject the wider myth that tech is apolitical. We are so used to hearing that technological progress is smooth and inevitable these days that it just seems like common sense. But this idea may not be unrelated to the fact that the people who promote it are mainly the people with a large financial interest in the adoption of new technology. Just as our past futures need not be dead to us, our present future is not compulsory.

 

Published: 20-02-2019 09:52

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