Artificial intelligence and society: a furtive transformation

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    Artificial intelligence and society: a furtive transformation

    Frederick Kile

    Received: 15 September 2011 / Accepted: 6 January 2012 / Published online: 12 February 2012

    Springer-Verlag London Limited 2012

    Abstract During the 1950s, there was a burst of enthu-

    siasm about whether artificial intelligence might surpass

    human intelligence. Since then, technology has changed

    society so dramatically that the focus of study has shifted

    toward societys ability to adapt to technological change.

    Technology and rapid communications weaken the capac-

    ity of society to integrate into the broader social structure

    those people who have had little or no access to education.

    (Most of the recent use of communications by the excluded

    has been disruptive, not integrative.) Interweaving of

    socioeconomic activity and large-scale systems had a

    dehumanizing effect on people excluded from social par-

    ticipation by these trends. Jobs vanish at an accelerating

    rate. Marketing creates demand for goods which stress the

    global environment, even while the global environment no

    longer yields readily accessible resources. Mining and

    petroleum firms push into ever more challenging environ-

    ments (e.g., deep mines and seabed mining) to meet

    resource demands. These activities are expensive, and

    resource prices rise rapidly, further excluding groups that

    cannot pay for these resources. The impact of large-scale

    systems on society leads to mass idleness, with the

    accompanying threat of violent reaction as unemployed

    masses seek to blame both people in power as well as the

    broader social structure for their plight. Perhaps, the impact

    of large-scale systems on society has already eroded

    essential qualities of humanness. Humans, when they feel

    socially useless, are dehumanized. (At the same time,

    machines (at any scale) seem incapable of emotion or

    empathy.) Has the cost of technological progress been too

    high to pay? These issues are addressed in this paper.

    Keywords Automation Artificial intelligence Emotion Global environment Human Large-scale systems Machine-aided thinking Society Technology

    1 Introduction

    Alan Turing (1950) hypothesized that artificial intelligence

    (AI) will be a reality when a human communicating with a

    machine will not be able to distinguish the machines

    response from a humans response.

    For decades, Turings brilliant observation has been a

    hallmark of characterizing AI. However, advances in

    hardware, communications, and software have moved

    human interactions with machines in a direction which

    could not have been anticipated by Turing or his


    In part, the development of communications followed

    by emergence of new capabilities in the physical realm has

    driven an alternative form of humanmachine interaction

    resembling AI in some ways.

    World War 2 and its aftermath created unprecedented

    human mobility, particularly in the United States. Move-

    ment of people called for new forms of communication. As

    recently as the 1950s, the Morse code and teletype formed

    a backdrop for aviation.

    With the junction transistor and integrated circuits,

    mainframe computers were developed. Though a few ear-

    lier computers resembling mainframes had been developed

    using vacuum tubes, the failure rate of tubes was too high

    for meaningful computing. Those early computers were

    sufficiently powerful to illustrate the potential for reliable

    F. Kile (&)Appleton, WI, USA



    AI & Soc (2013) 28:107115

    DOI 10.1007/s00146-012-0396-0

  • computing, given new forms of computer hardware not

    subject to frequent failures.

    2 Societal effects of automation and computing power

    Early mainframe computers paved the way for machine-

    aided thinking. As automation was developing on a par-

    allel track, a new aspect of humanmachine interaction

    was beginning. Taken together, automation and machine-

    aided thinking may be designated as AMAT. A steady

    decline of less-skilled jobs began with automation.

    Employment opportunities gradually declined around the

    globe. Machine-aided thinking will continue eroding

    employment opportunities at ever higher skill levels and

    thus force people to accept longer periods of schooling or

    low opportunities for employment. This has become

    painfully evident in the situation facing college and uni-

    versity graduates in the United State. There are parallel

    developments in other nations. In some regions, even a

    Ph.D in a highly technical field does not guarantee


    Developments noted above suggest that ever increasing

    numbers of people around the world will be unable to find

    meaningful employment. If broad and unremitting under-

    employment and unemployment (Kile 2003) become a

    global norm, our societal system will confront a potential

    for unrest never before seen at the global level. An exam-

    ination of twentieth century history strongly suggests that

    unemployment in Germany and other nations was a major

    factor in triggering World War 2. We cannot at this point

    describe the types of social unrest that might accompany

    widespread global unemploymentparticularly since that

    problem is likely to continue to grow.

    It seems almost unnecessary to cite examples of

    machines displacing humans because new examples arise

    almost daily. Two recent agricultural developments illus-

    trate this point: (1) One manufacturer announced devel-

    opment of a driverless tractor (The Independent 1997;

    Elektor Academy 2011); (2) Some farms have attached a

    chip to their cows. The chip monitors milk production,

    quality, etc. (Cooper and Sigalla 1996; Sigalla 2000). The

    cows remain in a pasture until they feel the urge to be

    milked. At that point, each cow goes to a gate which then

    opens and from that point on, every aspect of milking is

    automated. It is possible for the farmer to sit in a high-

    rise building at some remote location and arrange for

    human intervention when the cow-machine system needs

    attention. For thousands of years, farming has occupied the

    vast majority of the worlds population. How will our

    social structures adapt if most agricultural jobs become


    As computing advanced, the need for workers per unit of

    output declined, though initially output grew fast enough to

    mask this phenomenon. This increase in total economic

    output led to the depletion of readily available raw materials.

    Most materials continue to be available. However, access to

    new supplies of raw materials typically adds new monetary

    costs as well as increasing damage to the environment.

    An example of the effects of supply limitations: Though

    the Yom Kippur War of 1973 was the proximate cause of

    escalating global oil prices, the underlying driver of oil

    prices was uneven distribution of oil reserves as well as

    rising consumption of that resource.

    3 Computing encroaches on human dominance

    of society

    Development of capable mainframe computers gave rise to

    serious contemplation that possibly machines would not

    merely augment human thought, but ultimately replace it.

    The mainframe computer was followed by supercom-

    puters. Supercomputers were followed by massively

    parallel computing. This phenomenon created conditions in

    which some tasks previously the sole province of people

    began to migrate into the domain of machines.

    During the era when mainframe computing first grew,

    Turings conjecture was still unquestioned. Some observers

    felt that Turings criterion for AI would never be reached.

    At the time computing power was growing rapidly a

    parallel and equally potent (from a social perspective),

    nanotechnology was emerging. Perhaps, nanotechnology

    lagged computer developments by a decade or more, but

    that point is moot. Although nanotechnology has not yet

    been exploited in the growth of new forms of AI, it cannot

    be ruled out as an adjunct to the impact of computing on

    society. Some analysts see nanotechnology as having a

    more profound effect on society than computing, particu-

    larly because self-replicating nanomachines may not be


    Consider what has happened beginning in the late 1980s

    and the 20 years following 1990. Carefully programmed

    computers have beaten the worlds greatest human chess

    player. The world champion of chess is now a computer

    and its associated software.

    Airliners can now land in conditions of ceiling zero

    because computers and automation have capabilities not

    possessed by even the finest human pilots. Not long ago, I

    was on a flight from Chicago to Zurich which landed in

    ceiling zero conditions. It was an eerie feeling to note that

    we had touched down before I could see anything.

    We are now at a point where many observers, when

    asked Will AI surpass human intelligence? might

    respond, Its not a question of if, but of when.

    108 AI & Soc (2013) 28:107115


  • A standard response to the threat of AI to society has

    been, We can always unplug the machines.

    Some have asked, W