AI Is Having A Moment. So Is Humanity.
As I wrote previously here and in my recent news media interviews, the release of ChatGPT and DALL-E 2 could be called the “Big Bang” moment for Artificial Intelligence. All revolutionary technologies have a Big Bang moment. This is when that technology bursts into society, when we see the potential and often the threats. Usually to jobs and other areas. ChatGPT was the first time in AIs 50+ year history that humanity could really start to understand what AI can do.
Up until the launch of DALLE-E 2 and ChatGPT, Artificial Intelligence wasn’t really seen to have a big impact by most of society. The big changes to our broader society were mostly seen as something in the future. For the majority of society, AI was the in the realm of entertainment through movies like Terminator or shows like Black Mirror. Our most common connection with AI was voice assistants like Siri, Alexa and Hey Google.
The first sizeable impacts on society for AI have been the aesthetic element of culture; art, design, literature. Images and language / writing, are core ways in which we communicate with one another. They are important in cultural transmission and how we help one another understand our world and how we want to live in our world. This is why tools like ChatGPT and others, had such a huge impact on us.
“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”
- Father John Culkin, SD
Humanity needs Artificial Intelligence right now and in the future. Done right, it could be one of the most important revolutionary technologies we have ever created.
Humanity is having a moment now with AI and its happening very fast. Perhaps faster than any other revolutionary technology. Although it did take about 50 years for us to get here. This is a promising sign. How is this happening?
How is Artificial Intelligence Creating a Moment for Humanity?
To understand the impact of these new AI tools, we have to set aside the more technical aspects of AI and look at how culture sees, reacts to, and then adopts revolutionary technologies. Humans are indelibly intertwined with technology ever since we created tools from stones, wood and other natural materials.
As Father John Culkin, SD said, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” (the quote is often attributed to McLuhan, but it wasn’t him.) In cultural terms, once we adopt a technology, we then adapt it to our cultural norms, behaviours and traditions. Then, that technology plays a role in how we create new traditions, rituals, norms and behaviours.
If we look at various Indigenous cultures around the world, especially those that still practice hunter-gatherer activities, we often see that there is a primary hunting tool, such as the Austroasiatic crossbow of the Hmong tribe in Laos. Then there’s gunpowder that came from China. Western Europeans saw its benefit as a weapon, hence guns.
Cultures often reject technologies at first. They may later accept them, but they’ll adapt the technology in ways that better suit their environment and social norms. This can happen quickly or over generations. It varies.
When it comes to AI, the initial uses for it have largely been in the industrial sector such as for productivity, manufacturing and in healthcare. AI has also been largely seen, rightly, as experimental in many areas, including business and healthcare. AI is also still what is called “narrow”, in that it does one thing really well, but can’t do a lot of complex or even simple things all at the same time. That is called “general” AI. We are a long way from that.
What ChatGPT and DALLE-E 2 did that is unusual for a revolutionary technology is to slam hard and fast into the creative aspect of human cultures. Within days of DALL-E 2 being released, a number of artists and designed launched lawsuits for copyright infringement. The same has happened for ChatGPT. This is because these tools, as part of Generative AI (GAI), need, like any AI tool, massive amounts of data from which to learn. That means billions of images and pieces of text. The question quickly became; does the creators of these tools have a right to use all of this data to train their tool?
This is a question that the courts will have to decide on. So this means AI is now facing its first major legal challenge and law, a part of how we govern our society, is an element of culture.
The other threat reaction to GAI tools is of course, jobs. Designers have already speculated that companies like Adobe will mean the end of designers. Marketers suddenly, unimaginatively, saw a way to write all kinds of marketing content to game the search engines and reduce or eliminate the need for writers. Academia and the legal profession have been impacted as well. Those in knowledge professions, white collar workers, have resisted GAI tools as an existential threat as well.
Almost always a culture sees revolutionary technologies as a threat first. Perhaps this goes back to an ancient human reaction. This is where we are with GAI today.
Ethics around AI have been a topic bubbling below, and sometimes over, the surface for decades. Little progress has been made. Things on this front, however, are changing. Are these changes fast enough? We can’t yet be sure. But governments around the world are paying more attention. Academic institutions are launching new institutes to address these issues. Some funded by billionaire entrepreneurs. Tech Giants, mostly Google and Apple, are taking steps to address issues such as privacy, racial and gender bias. How well they’re addressing this is debatable.
The fact is, technology is a part of what it means to be human. It enables us to organise, to thrive across many niches unlike other species. We are now entering a very messy period. This is good because we are asking existential questions. We are having debates and arguments. Artificial Intelligence is as front and centre as climate change. This is also good because AI, coupled with quantum computing, could help save our planet, other species and nature as a whole.