Peter Chamberlin

web person

A techno-utopian AI-assisted future for what?

Silicon Valley technology is for technology's sake.

The New York Times recently featured a fascinating puff piece for Google's recent AI efforts. It centered on an interview with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who expounded at length on the transformative potential that AI advances were beginning to unlock.

The advances in neural networks are indeed amazing and powerful, but the article struck me for another reason. Pichai talks about automating away our human relationships in the same way you might automate a production line.

The following passage in particular stood out.

Imagine if you could tell Google Maps, “I’d like to go to the airport, but I need to stop off on the way to buy a present for my nephew.” A more generally intelligent version of that service... would know all sorts of things that, say, a close friend or an earnest intern might know: your nephew’s age, and how much you ordinarily like to spend on gifts for children, and where to find an open store. But a truly intelligent Maps could also conceivably know all sorts of things a close friend wouldn’t, like what has only recently come into fashion among preschoolers in your nephew’s school — or more important, what its users actually want. If an intelligent machine were able to discern some intricate if murky regularity in data about what we have done in the past, it might be able to extrapolate about our subsequent desires, even if we don’t entirely know them ourselves.

Putting aside the obvious flaw in the scenario, that in any serious futurist's techno-utopian world none of us would go to actual physical shops, there's a part of me that thinks yes, that would be really convenient. I don't like having to rush to get things done. I like to choose good gifts based on relevant information. Having an assistant at my fingertips to abstract away the hassle of buying gifts sounds excellent. But the story is a tragedy.

Scenario

A jet-setting executive is dashing for yet another plane. He's been in back-to-back meetings with investors. He's had a New York Times journalist interviewing him for a profile. He didn't get a chance to catch up on those board papers. This plane will take him to his family home for one night. It's his nephew's birthday. His sister will be home with her family. He hasn't seen them since last year.

How old is the kid now? 8, 10 maybe? For a moment he tries to remember what he would have liked when he was ten. How did it feel to be ten? But he is exhausted. He has no idea what kind of present to buy.

"OK, Google. I need to pick up a present for my nephew on the way to the airport."

"Sure, I'll take you to the store."

He goes back to his inbox and works through a couple of replies then catches up on a report summary before they arrive. The car opens the passenger door. He walks into the shop and collects the parcel. It is already paid for, neatly wrapped and labelled. He takes it back to the car.

"OK, Google. What did I get?"

"It's a Vector VR drone."

His watch buzzes. Something's on fire at work. He opens his inbox and starts to respond.

Correct me, but this isn't a utopia. This isn't technology enriching our lives, it is abstracting our lives away. Imagine instead that the objective of the technology was for him to spend more time with his family.

Scenario

He is at the lake with his nephew. They are fishing. His phone buzzes. Something's on fire at work. End of year revenue is down in the far east and it's going to impact his department.

"OK, Google. I need our Q2 growth projections re-drafted to reflect the results from Japan. And we need to bring forward my call with the team in Berlin. Maybe for tomorrow morning?"

"Certainly, I'll send two proposed re-writes to your inbox. The Berlin team can do 8am, your calendar looks good then."

"8am is good. Thank you."

He turns his attention back to the water. There's not much biting but he thinks he's got his nephew hooked.

In the first instance the executive must do a lot of working while Google automates his life. In the second Google is largely doing his job. Drafting reports and responses to things for him, coming to him for decisions and direction.

The problems aren't of equal size. It's far easier to automate the selection of a child's birthday present than it is to automate business. They aren't mutually exclusive either. However the fact that the CEO of Google gives the example from the side of someone too busy to know what his own nephew likes, and doesn't have time to go to the store, does tells us a lot about the perceptions and priorities of the tech world.

Silicon Valley is apprently dominated by workaholics. It is a fetishised culture. People are expected to live for the industry. Corporations provide gilded cages for their employees. It is even possible that it is what some people really want. Work to replace religion. Work to be religion.

I don't think that's something new. We have a strong urge to be subordinate, to have a framework to live within, to be given meaning and context. The urge to be subordinate is strong enough that we can't help but create entities to be subject to. Why shouldn't technology be the complete answer, for it's own sake?

There can't not be an answer. We must be doing all of this for a reason.