“I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.”
“All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” Richard Brautigan (1967)
The poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” shows that the question of symbiosis with our most powerful tools was open even at the dawn of the computing revolution. Despite what might fairly be described as centuries of progress in a handful of decades since, we are no closer to resolving that question. The same hopes and fears still haunt us.
The passage of time has perhaps added an edge of sophistication to our worries. People no longer fear that an automated billing system will dehumanize us or that a computerized database is a threat to human understanding. The role of computers as organizers of vast amounts of data and tools of brute computation is accepted. After all, a computer in such a role does what filing cabinets and abacuses have done for centuries – just faster.
The locus of anxiety is computers doing things we’ve never seen them do before. The focus of fear and hope is artificial intelligence and what it means to have such power at our disposal. The shape of the fear is that there’s something about AI which is inimical to human nature – and that humanity will lose the resulting conflict. In popular consciousness, this fear has held center stage for a very long time.
This is all the more reason to ask ourselves: what is there, then, to hope for?
The Promise of Collaboration
Modern AI doesn’t really promise an artificially intelligent mind. Its ability to beat us at games or to do tasks we once believed were uniquely human is unprecedented and stunning. However, we shouldn’t let that confuse us. The ability of AI to do this isn’t the result of a humanlike intelligence, but rather the unique ability of such models to correlate astounding amounts of data.
This fundamental difference in approach means that there’s much less risk of conflict and less risk of either side replacing the other. Instead, this suggests that both sides are most powerful when they complement each other. So far, we have the uniquely human ability to process context and the (also unique) AI ability to correlate several libraries’ worth of data in the blink of an eye. The two work best in tandem – combined, they can produce results that far outpace what either side can do in isolation.
What would this collaboration look like?
The simplest form of collaboration is just passing tasks on to either an AI or a human, depending on the type of each task. This lets an AI tackle tasks best suited to it and call on human aid where it cannot cope. And the work doesn’t have to be something data-intensive and dull, either. Even something as fundamentally human as communication can be shared with AI helpers.
No AI built any time soon will be a scintillating conversationalist. Modern AI-driven chatbots are undoubtedly powerful, but there are so many situations where only the deftness and empathy of a real human will do. Even simple customer support queries will often need that special human touch at some point. Despite that, AI can help.
Only humans can be empathic, read context, and know when to bend the rules. But only machines can be infinitely patient and always available. So why not split the duties accordingly? In this scenario, users will initially make contact with a chatbot that provides helpful, patient, and instantly-available solutions to the most common sort of problem or query. If the chatbot can’t handle the problem, it can seamlessly transition to a human operator.
This sort of ‘replacement’ isn’t just harmless to humans – it helps them profoundly. To run through the same script over and over again is a human playing a machine’s part, badly. A chatbot can liberate humans from this burden and help them do tasks better suited for them.
The collaboration between AI and humans can be much deeper than that, however.
A Personal Sort of Omniscience
Modern times make us all aspire to omniscience. A crucial difference between the bulk of history and this new normal is the amount of data we’re exposed to on a daily basis. From the trivial to the vital, we are bombarded with statistics, times, deadlines, and a thousand other data points, minute-to-minute. To make matters worse, we are somehow supposed to synthesize all these into some coherent daily agenda just to make it to tomorrow while discharging all our obligations.
Historically, the sort of people who lived lives like this – a tiny minority in leadership roles – had a large staff just to help manage this flood of data. Most of us aren’t so lucky. No wonder so many people struggle with a feeling of being overwhelmed and not in control. AI can help restore that control and help us all stay one step ahead.
Paying attention to and correlating vast amounts of data is what artificial intelligence does best, after all. As technologies develop, we can entrust more and more of the minutiae of daily life to our AI helpers, making more room for creativity, empathy, and all the things humans excel at.
Professions that rely on the ability to sift data in particular, like medicine, will benefit even more from this symbiosis. An AI won’t replace your doctor any time soon, but it will give your doctor superpowers. With systems to automate away divining lab results, studying medical images, and poring over case histories, doctors will be able to devote more of their time to the actual patients. They’ll be able to provide not only a higher standard of care but a more human kind of care.
Machines of Loving Grace
Paradoxically, a future of collaboration with AI promises a chance for us to be more human. To ease the burden of tracking an increasingly data-rich world and let us all focus on what matters most to us. In this future, AI will act not as an intrusive, destructive influence, but a subtle, constructive one instead. This potential and this promise are woven into the fundamental nature of modern AI.
This promise also has a dark side, however: whether we collaborate with AI or conflict with it, whether we use it to help our humanity flourish or oppress it, is not a matter of technology or fate, but of just us, humans. We can choose to pursue a future of collaborative, positive, ethical AI. The only question is – will we?