Another article about artificial intelligence. I could stop here and if you had ever read about Kahneman and Tversky, or Michael Lewis’ book “The Undoing Project” and truly understood its message, you would know that first sentence would be enough to satisfy the three core principles of heuristics and you don’t need to read any further. Read on.
Representativeness, availability and anchoring. Those are the three core principles that are the underpinning of how human beings make decisions. And thanks to some recent technological, and I will put forward equally important marketing breakthroughs, these principles are getting a lot of focus and attention recently, as they should with all the attention surrounding the advances in artificial intelligence. I was actually reading Jacob Ward’s book, “The Loop” about how technology influences our choices and the role of AI, and barely started the second chapter when it dawned on me. Artificial intelligence is already here. And it has made us genuinely stupid. I’ll elaborate.
When we talk about human intelligence, and the body of work produced by Kahneman and Tversky that was so profoundly impactful in the field of psychology and heuristics, we cannot escape a discussion about emotion and the impact it has on how we make decisions. Indeed, that is probably what gives us the greatest degree of discomfort in discussing artificial intelligence. That last sentence itself is in fact an endless loop. A feeling about feelings. Because it is precisely an emotional response about artificial intelligence that both moves it forward, and pulls it back at the same time. An endless tug of war in making a decision about how machines should make decisions.
It comes down to this. Machines do not have feelings and never will. They will therefore never make decisions the way humans do. All they can do is replicate an increasingly massive volume of binary choices based on rules that we have created, and use cold, hard probability calculations to make a final decision. But there is no emotion involved. And that is what terrifies us. But right there is also the bias in our thinking. An emotional attitude towards machines as cold, unfeeling, emotionless instruments that will control us through the “perfection” of calculated decisions, completely devoid of compassion and empathy, that will destroy society as we know it. That very thinking and bias, however, has created a blind spot as to where the real danger is. To paraphrase a famous quote, we have already met the enemy. It is not the machines. It is us.
We have already been controlled by artificial intelligence for the past 15 years and we didn’t even resist it. And it has made us all genuinely stupid. Why? Because it appealed to our emotions. The thing that we think makes us superior to machines is in fact the exact vulnerability exploited by those who programmed them to make us their slaves. If you understand where I’m going with this, click “Like.”
That’s right. Social media. For the past decade or so, our choices and behaviors have been dominated by algorithms that were rooted in the most base instincts of human nature: anger, jealousy and lust. A college student prank, both fueling and fueled by all three of the principles of heuristics that came down to one simple, very superficial and compassion-less decision: “hot” or “not hot.” The power of that influence was not lost on its creators and while the algorithms have become only slightly more sophisticated and nuanced (winking emoji, angry emoji, shrug emoji), the process and the endpoint are exactly the same.
And being the malleable yet self-preserving creatures of habit that we are, we have in a very short period of time relinquished our ability to make complex, truly intelligent decisions, and succumbed to the slavery of binary choices: like or not like. Truth and alternative truth. Facts and alternative facts. To the point of risking our own personal health, even in the face of a pandemic. Making decisions this way takes less effort, is faster and less stressful. Yet we are more tired, feel more blocked and more anxious than ever. Why?
Because we are living under constant threat – a perpetual limbic state of fight or flight. Our emotions as humans are supposed to serve us in shaping our decisions, and rise to the surface only for short periods when self-preservation is the primary goal. It’s why our reflexes in such situations are heightened to the extent that we act faster than we can think. And in the right context that’s a good thing. But when they become the primary mode of decision making, all the time, it’s exhausting. And it lacks intellect, which is not the same thing as intelligence. Ultimately, like any artificial mode of immediate gratification, we are constantly looking for the next “fix.” We are addicted. And addicts make poor choices.
Enter the politicians. In a world where power and influence rely on making a binary choice, blue state or red state, democrat or republican, left wing or right wing, liberal or conservative, capitalist or communist, democracy or totalitarianism, the very people who rely on us to give them “control of your screen” have exploited our thought processes remotely, and all we had to do was click “accept.” We have made increasingly poor choices.
From denying the benefits of decades of medical science, to accepting the latest conspiracy theory, to abandoning or even rejecting longstanding principles of governance and the responsibility of “freedom” and all that it entails, we have made bad choices. We succumbed to their appeal because they felt familiar, convenient, and consistent with what we knew. Representativeness, availability and anchoring. Also because there were people willing to abandon their moral responsibility (or simply lacked a moral compass to begin with) for the sake of greed and power, in order to enslave us to their will. We have become the “artificial intelligence” machine we loathe.
But there is hope. If history has taught us anything, and if we do still retain the essential and uniquely human trait that is the ability to learn, it is that we as human beings do indeed learn. And it is not through programming. It’s through living, call it evolution, and for those of you who may be more spiritually inclined, you may believe that it is through the divine qualities imbued in us and in whose image we have been fashioned. Regardless of which theory you ascribe to, (and I would say they are not mutually exclusive – truly non-binary thinking), we still retain the ability to change our own course and our own destiny as individuals, and as a society.
It will take time, effort, resilience and perhaps most of all faith. Faith in each other. Faith in a higher power. Faith in a higher intellect. Because like it or not, we are all in this together in a very non-binary way. Technology is not inherently good or bad. And artificial intelligence as such will no doubt represent another human achievement that unlocks potential accomplishments like never before.
But we must remember that each and every decision we make impacts someone else’s life through a series of permutations we will never be able to distill into a binary choice. That is the human experience. That is real intelligence. Throughout history, whenever we have dedicated ourselves to learning, thinking and exchanging ideas for the benefit of understanding, we have achieved new heights, made new discoveries, found new physical and emotional healing, and established new standards of wealth and well being. We are on the precipice of being able to do so again. We only need to do one thing.