By John Toth
Cassette tape recorders were still a few years away; the Internet was unheard of; and telephones plugged into walls were only used to make calls. But in 1968, a blockbuster movie foreshadowed what could happen if artificial intelligence turned against its creators.
Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” may be one of the greatest science-fiction classics of all time. It’s also one of the strongest warnings about what can happen if artificial intelligence, presented by a computer, in this case, gains too much power.
The star of the movie is HAL 9000, the AI that decides to kill all the spacecraft crew members after it glitches. I saw the movie as a preteen and had no clue what it was all about. As I got older, I re-watched it, and it began to make sense. Today, it is making a lot more sense. If you have not watched it, give it a try. It was only about five decades ahead of its time.
“Space Odyssey” serves as a clear warning that inserting too much power into the metaphorical hands of artificial intelligence might not be such a good idea.
“Have we, as human beings, developed a tool that will lead to our own demise?”
This question is not part of the movie. It was asked by Brazosport College President Dr. Vincent Solis recently during his presentation to a group of business leaders at the Greater Angleton Chamber of Commerce business luncheon.
We are not yet where HAL was in the movie. The question is: Are we going to use it for our benefit or eventual destruction?
Humans are doing just fine destroying each other without AI. We don’t need help in that category. We need help focusing on how to make things better. But that depends on the user.
“Bad actors have the same access to these tools as good actors,” Solis said.
This is the first time in history that humanity has access to a tool that can learn, he said. It can mimic language, identity; it can make things up, learn to understand human emotions, set its own goals; and it can control humans by manipulating information.
That’s right out of the HAL playbook.
“Just think about it. We do not understand what it is doing or how it is doing it. We understand algorithms up to a point. It’s a really scary thought,” he said.
Today, AI is running social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The narrative is controlled by a handful of people who own those companies.
“They have the power of government. It’s the first time we have experienced anything like that,” Solis said.
They also have the power to influence thought and opinion and to manipulate programming to addict young people. It’s as bad as being addicted to drugs, he said.
“Young men have a hard time connecting with the ladies. They are losing social skills,” Solis said, because when they are not on social media, they are playing video games.
Meanwhile, their Chinese counterparts are submerging themselves in math, science and medicine.
“The big question is, do we even know that it is manipulating us,” he asked.
AI is the greatest invention since the Gutenberg Press, which took information out of the hands of only the rich and the church and handed it to anyone who wanted to learn how to read and write, Solis said.
Now, the task is to make sure that the good of AI outweighs the bad.
Solis thinks that it will, which gave his audience some sense of relief that maybe we’re not all doomed after all. Don’t build those bunkers yet.
Among its benefits will be to make the workforce more efficient and keep the population healthier.
“With the advances in medicine, we’ll have people living to 140-160. They are being born right now,” he remarked. Then we’ll be going through a midlife crisis at 60 or 70, he joked.
It was a fascinating subject that I personally appreciated, being the lifelong geek that I am. I use AI now on a daily basis. Solis said he does also. It quickly takes care of a lot of the tedious work.
In high school, I learned to use the slide rule before Texas Instruments came out with a scientific calculator that made it obsolete. I also learned Basic programming in college and even taught myself DOS before Microsoft and Apple made them useless.
We’ve always had progress. But now we have progress on steroids.
Solis puts people like me in the “digital migrant” category. We went through all the phases of the digital world from the beginning to now. Not all of us became comfortable with the technological changes.
“Within 30 years, everybody in this room will be mostly gone, and the last group of digital migrants will be off the books. Everybody after that who are digital natives, are comfortable with technology,” he concluded.
Whatever happened to HAL?
It got shut down - one module at a time, and its consciousness slowly degraded. It was kind of sad. At the end, humans prevailed.
That’s a good ending, just like Solis’.