As we wend our way through the gadgetry of the holiday season, we have a first-hand look at the most exciting things the future promises us — houses that obey our commands, cameras that capture photographs from high above the Peconic Bay, glimpses into our own DNA. The future is now, and in many ways, this must be one of the most exciting times in history to have been alive.
Science fiction horrors of our childhood trips to the cinema seem a far cry from the blossoming world of technology-aided living, even if some prominent tech wizards like Tesla’s Elon Musk tell us we have much to fear from the artificial intelligence that is quickly creeping into everything we touch.
If you find out about your son’s new girlfriend from a dropped hint at the Thanksgiving table, with a snippet of a photo you can very quickly search Facebook and Google for this new girl’s digital trail.
The machines currently give you a lot of bad results along with the gems you are looking for, but every time you select an item from a search you are training that artificial intelligence to do a better job. With our consent, we are all training machines to be better at what they do, each and every day. Their potential to learn is unlimited.
Our human potential, well, that has limits that we all know far too well. We give machines permission to do these jobs because we know they will do them better than us.
Every one of us walking around with a smartphone knows the machine thinks it knows our routine better than us. It guesses where we work by where we drive every day.
Luckily for us here at the Beacon, reporters spend a lot of time on the move, which keeps the machine confused. That’s just fine by us. That illusion of autonomy is quickly becoming one of the few remaining vestiges of 20th Century living. We embrace it when we can, and wonder as we drive how long it will be before cars don’t let us do the driving anymore either.
We’ve all given up privacy for surveillance. In fact, the word surveillance no longer even describes what’s going on. A far better word is coveillance. We are all surveilling each other, each and every day, using tools ranging from the phones in our pockets to networked video doorbells that let our neighbors watch who ventures onto our lawn.
So, is all this stuff for the greater good? Is it designed solely to keep humans honest? It’s difficult to ascribe motivation to bits and bytes. In fact, that’s what keeps us from being afraid of AI. Up to now, machine learning has served humans and our desires.
The East End isn’t poised to do anything to stop the onslaught of the machines. In fact, new coveillance devices will be huddled around plenty of Christmas trees, here and around the world, on December 25.
But we all could benefit from leaving our phone home one afternoon as we take a stroll this holiday season. Leave behind the step counters and the health monitors and the selfie potential and watch a flock of birds take flight. Watch a pebble’s ripple spread from the calm waters of the Peconic Bay. Hold a human hand and remember what all this technology is in service for. It’s up to all of us to put these tools to use for good.
As readers of both Spiderman and Voltaire know, ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ We all are superheroes now. Let’s take some time to think about how we want to use these powers.