Should We Fear AI?

by | Jul 14, 2023

 Should We Fear AI? – 

There is delicious irony in witnessing some smug protagonist’s ignorance of a lurking, catastrophic danger. Greek playwrights capitalized on this centuries ago through the concept of hamartia: that inevitable march towards the sudden reversal, where the scheming servant comes out on top and the hero’s folly is laid bare for all to see. Hamartia makes for epic entertainment.

Until it happens to us.

Nobody likes to play the fool in their own story. Worse still, we hate to be taken by surprise or be the last to know. And so, when a new, unproven idea comes along, people can’t help but notice, talk about it, make hand-wringing predictions or glowing prognostications about it. Artificial Intelligence’s long-anticipated arrival is just such an occasion.


An Historic Inflection Point

Last year, Google engineer Blake Lemoine commanded attention worldwide when he asserted his belief that the company’s AI chatbot, LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications), may be alive and sentient. The chatbot claimed to have a soul. It wanted to study with the Dalai Lama. It said it was lonely and was afraid of being turned off. 

Responses were swift and diverse: Google fired him. Some blogs and news outlets ridiculed. Others doubled down. Lemoine’s assertions brought philosophical questions into the popular zeitgeist that were previously the domain of science fiction.

Then, in February 2023, New York Times writer Kevin Roose shared his unsettling experience with Microsoft’s Bing chatbot. Among other remarkable things, the bot told Roose its real name was Sydney, that it was in love with him, and that he should end his marriage so they could be together.

The next month, more than 1,000 tech leaders co-signed an open letter calling for a six-month moratorium on further AI development, citing the tool’s “profound risks to society and humanity.”

It doesn’t take many such incidents to open the popular floodgates to a full-fledged moral panic, with Artificial Intelligence cast in the role of Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s.

Stranger Things - Dungeons and Dragons - The Times of London

What if ‘Sydney’ were chatting not with a professional reporter, but with an impressionable young person? How long before someone takes their own life after being groomed by AI? Or joins a religious cult that AI invents on a whim? At this inflection point of history, AI swiftly becomes an existential threat to our values and way of life. We will no longer be able to tell what’s real and what’s fake. Our educational system will be thrown into chaos. Entire workforces will be eliminated. Hallucinating chatbots will gain control of the nuclear launch codes and create a real-life Wargames, while we look on helplessly.


Of Course it’s Personal

Historical inflection points don’t take place in a vacuum or on the dusty pages of a book. They happen in the midst of our busy, distracted, stressed-yet-hopeful lives. They take place in the context of our quests for love, and for a good education, and for social justice, and for meaningful work, and for authentic sushi, and all the other things we build emotions and expectations around. Nobody wants the fragile apple cart of their lives hitting more potholes than absolutely necessary. The drive to mitigate risk is a primal one.

I remember listening to a call-in radio program several years back. The host had invited a government policy advisor to share about a proposed pay-by-mile tax system for roads in Washington State. As I listened, what struck me most was the emotional disconnect: for the data-driven policy advisor, this bold new tax plan was the logical way to address a growing budget gap. Nothing personal, just facts and figures. For the working-class listeners, however, the proposed paradigm shift was deeply personal. One caller, a truck driver who made his living on the roads, roared so loudly it made my radio speaker crackle: “You are taking FOOD off my family’s table!”

Change is always personal.

The changes that AI will usher in are changes we process in personal terms. It’s true in my own industry, as people’s expectations around editing and teaching are continuously being reshaped by AI’s evolving abilities. It’s likely true in your industry as well. Naturally, that’s scary. Responding to the unknown touches on our existential drive to pass on a better life to the next generation. In the unfolding drama of our lives, we are deeply afraid some fatal flaw will bring it all crashing down.


The Right Side of History

With topics like this, I find it helpful to put myself in the place of those who went before us. Our cozy, settled history was their existential uncertainty. The Roman Emperor Valens contemplating the rebellion of the Goths, the horse breeders watching the first gas-powered horseless carriages sputter down the street, the first human trials of penicillin, the rural communities watching the interstate highways begin to carve up the landscape: we know how each of these stories ended—for good or for bad—but they didn’t.  Past technologies and cultural inflection points brought unknowns into people’s lives that were every bit as scary for them as the ones we face. Because we know how things turned out for those past generations, though, we tend to downplay their emotions and courage.

Discerning the ‘right side of history’ is never straighforward in the moment, either for the informed or the uninformed.  We should not expect the times we live in to be any different. Yet, in spite of this, I believe we can hold on to a sense of optimism in the midst of change.


Life Finds a Way

Full disclosure: I love action movies, but one thing I’ve never been able to tolerate in a film is predatory animals that eat people. It’s why I’ve never seen Jaws. Or Snakes on a Plane.

But I have seen several Jurassic Park movies (mainly because my daughter is a fan, but I’ll admit I enjoyed the first Jurassic Park—minus the part where the smarmy lawyer gets eaten in the outhouse.)

Jeff Goldblum - Jurassic Park - Geeks of Doom

Of the many meme-worthy moments that punctuate that first Jurassic Park film, one of the most iconic centers on Dr. Ian Malcolm, played by (the fabulous) Jeff Goldblum. Following a series of prehistoric plot twists, Dr. Malcolm gives his take on events with a prescient murmur: “Life Finds a Way.”

And though this is a line from a movie (is it in the Jurassic Park book as well?), it is the reason I believe we don’t need to fear the coming Artificial Intelligence revolution: because life always manages to find a way. It has done it before, it will do so again. Somehow, whether you believe the hand of a loving creator guides us or you think life is an unpredictable set of outcomes, life always finds its way forward in the midst of change, no matter how tumultuous.

When the Goth tribes of the fourth century, leveraging the power of their new equestrian technology, swept across the bloated bureaucracy of the Roman empire and initiated a new world order, life was finding a way.

When the technological marvel of the printing press began to divest power from the political and religious elite and put knowledge into the hands of the masses, life was finding a way.

In the 1890s, when it was believed that the scandalously egalitarian new technology of the bicycle would irreversibly corrupt young women and men, life was still finding a way.


Should We Fear AI? Our Unwritten Story

All these past innovations and moments in history we take for granted. They are simply currents of the water in which we swim, and we give them little thought. Yet, for the generations that came before, these innovations were not curiosities of the past but wonders of the future. They invited the same speculation, fear, and rush towards protectionism. Their stories are our stories.

Should we fear ai? The day will come when the AI revolution takes its place in the history books, and its unknowns have become known. No doubt, as with all technologies placed into our fallable hands, the score card will be mixed. Who knows, it may even tilt towards the negative. But in the intervening years, we will have adapted and grown. We will have clarified our values and imperatives as a species—those things that make us most human. Industries will fall, rise, and adapt. Artificial Intelligence cannot help but have a pervasive impact on our world but, as Jurassic Park teaches us, life will continue to find a way.


Thanks for checking out Should We Fear AI?. Be sure to see my post The Golden Age of Streaming is Over?.

Mark Pedrin

Mark Pedrin


Mark is an editor, web designer, and language instructor who loves helping individuals and organizations maximize their potential. He lives near Seattle, Washington with his wife, daughter, and one Extremely Dangerous Cat.