Summoning the demon

/ 05:16 AM October 12, 2018

Facebook knows everything about you, but you probably know that already.

Having the application on your phone, along with its “sister” products, somehow carries with it your implied consent for the social network to access your location and contacts, and many other personal data. Some users who downloaded their Facebook data even noticed that the data contained a log of their phone calls, text messages, and even offline credit card purchases. It now knows the faces of you and your friends, too.


Google has data on you as well. We’ve always known about this, but who has ever given it much thought? Google stores data on all your Google searches, YouTube video-watching history, and Google Maps locations and directions. You know what they say: If the product is free, then you are the product.

Facebook and Google are like our technological messiahs. They’ve both managed to make our postmodern lives incredibly easier and more efficient. It’s not much of a surprise, therefore, that these tech giants are teaming up to improve their artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. The announcement came earlier this month. Facebook also announced that it aims to double its artificial intelligence research by 2020.


With such a powerhouse tandem, the future of artificial intelligence research is rather assured. Science fiction is now reality, and our very mundane human activities need no longer be run by humans.

But why would Elon Musk, cofounder of Tesla and aspiring Mars resident say, “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon”? Even the late Stephen Hawking said that artificial intelligence is “likely to be either the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

These are in contrast to what former Alibaba chair Jack Ma recently said at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai last month—that, rather than fearing machines outsmarting humans, we must fear the stagnation of human wisdom instead. Likewise, Facebook’s chief AI scientist Yann LeCun said Musk’s call for regulating AI in its infancy is nuts, while Mark Zuckerberg thinks Musk’s doomsaying is irresponsible.

Artificial intelligence is nothing new. It was born in 1956 in Dartmouth College. That is more than half a century ago. Artificial intelligence is built on the premise that a machine could learn just like a human being does, and, as a result, make human lives easier. Each generation has had its own artistic imagery of what AI will look like, from “The Jetsons” to “The Terminator.”

Today, we are beginning to revel in its convenient glory, from booking a Grab to navigating traffic via Waze, autotagging on Facebook, filtering spam on Gmail, and even detecting plagiarism in student theses. These are all made possible by AI, and these are just for daily activities. In banking, AI can assess a person’s credit worthiness. In medicine, it can detect cancer in tissue slides. In law, it can detect red flags in legal documents.

But AI has also spawned internet trolls such as Microsoft’s Tay, which posted offensive Tweets supporting Hitler and white supremacy. Some say that AI is even shaping today’s democracy. In China, it is used alongside facial recognition for mass surveillance, ostensibly to help bring down crime. Lethal autonomous weapons can be created with the use of AI. And, of course, AI can take over our jobs and drive a deeper wedge into inequality.

This week, the World Summit AI was held in Amsterdam. I am eager to find out what further developments in AI can change the way we do things, from leisure to business. But I am also much more interested if an ethical foundation is being built for it. It’s a tad too cinematic to think that a superintelligence will wipe out humanity. I mean, have you talked to Siri? It can’t be possible at this point. But Bill Gates, Musk et al. must be onto something with their stated fears about AI.


One thing we can be certain of is that AI is startling in its ubiquity. It is in our very own pockets. And, judging by its firm grip and subtle control over us, Musk is wrong: With artificial intelligence, there is no summoning of demons. We are just building a new god.

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