AI can be a double-edged sword for society


As we head toward summer, hopefully we have the opportunity to take a break or a vacation, and the chance to enjoy all of the positives of friendship, companionship and human relationships. This brings me to our latest topic, artificial intelligence.

AI is a global phenomenon, and there will be no stopping its influence. As often as I may mention how our character, morals and responsibilities have deteriorated, AI has the potential to exponentially increase the weaknesses in our human condition.

I try to embrace technology, and can find many benefits to all the modern conveniences that have come our way. So many things that we now use every day didn’t exist even a short time ago. GPS, smartphones, social media, voice recognition, AirPods, the Apple Watch, streaming services. These are but a few advancements that we use regularly. Most of you have noticed that technological improvements and updates are moving faster than ever. Cars, airplanes and microwave ovens seem to have taken decades to evolve, but AI is moving much faster.

When I was in college, professors warned us that robots would eliminate most manufacturing jobs. They left out “job creation” — the robots had to be designed, built, sold, installed, programmed and maintained. Yes, some assembly-line jobs were eliminated, and during that transition period, human lives were changed forever. But even more jobs, in different fields requiring different expertise, were created. The destruction of manufacturing didn’t happen, and very few of us now have a problem with most of our automobiles being built robotically.

This is not a rallying cry against AI or a proclamation that it will destroy modern civilization. It is meant to be an eye-opener. Right now, AI is very capable of performing tasks, understanding, and learning from its mistakes, and completing most assignments better than humans. It is efficient and informed, and has huge positives in both the vehicular and medical fields. It can analyze data and make informed decisions quickly, and can avoid most forms of human error. AI can work 24/7 without getting tired, needing breaks, or requiring the light, heat and air conditioning that humans do. It can perform dangerous tasks such as bomb defusing and military operations, and enter hazardous environments.

Its ability to analyze data and hazards can be a godsend in the realms of medicine and traffic safety. It works without bias or prejudice. It can do tedious and repetitive jobs all day long. All this is supposed to allow humans to be more creative and find more time for leisure and enjoyment.

Of course, there are drawbacks. Startup costs are very high, the risk of job displacement is real, and there are privacy and hacking risks. AI lacks human creativity, emotion and empathy. It has no conscience; it will not stop a task based on a moral compass. When first introduced in a field, it can create unemployment. While it is supposed to provide safe opportunities for humans to flourish, the opposite is quite probable — that we will become lazy and dependent on AI to work for us.

The automotive industry seemed to be AI’s first foray into our lives. It is already used in other areas of transportation, including trains, planes, cruise ships and even traffic control. What will be next? What about medicine and education? Will teachers become unnecessary? Lawyers, accountants, writers, reporters, even actors and pop stars are susceptible to an AI “takeover.”

Should we welcome AI or be frightened by it? Probably both. There are plenty of science fiction movies that can certainly scare us, or at least make us think (“I Robot,” “The Matrix,” “Blade Runner,” “Short Circuit,” “WALL-E,” “2001: A Space Odyssey”). There are also plenty of examples of AI systems helping, improving and even saving our lives. It has progressed from simple machine learning algorithms to advanced learning concepts and deep thinking. Its growth has helped companies with complex issues such as fraud detection, medical diagnosis and weather forecasting. Predicting earthquakes and tsunamis are examples of what AI might be able to do for the greater good. Its algorithms have saved countless lives through early detection.

I’d like to think that it will advance civilization and improve our lives. Sadly, the opposite is also quite possible. As we saw during the pandemic, when we have too much time on our hands, we eat, drink and watch television too much. We are not growing in creativity and interpersonal relationships. What will we use our longer lifespans and more free time doing?

Ed Fare is the mayor of Valley Stream.