What it is: Hollywood portrays artificial intelligence as a threat to mankind, but the real threat to mankind are human beings themselves.
In the “Terminator” movies, the biggest threat to the human race is SkyNet, an artificially intelligent computer network that decides the human race is a threat and tries to wipe it out completely. While it’s theoretically possible for a computer to gain self awareness, the real danger lies in human beings using artificial intelligence. So rather than look at artificial intelligence as a potential enemy, it’s far more likely that the real enemy will be another human being who oppresses others using artificial intelligence.
First of all, artificial intelligence or machine learning has been with us for years. At the simplest level, spam filters use a crude form of machine learning to identify spam and get smarter about the tricks spammers use to slip past anti-spam filters. Credit card companies use machine learning to track individual purchases and flag potentially abnormal ones, such as a a large purchase for a luxury item in Paris when you live and ordinarily make smaller purchases in Omaha, Nebraska.
Facial recognition is another form of artificial intelligence that casinos and security personnel rely on to identify known threats when they arrive. If you’ve ever used Siri, Cortana, or Alexa, you’ve used voice recognition systems that use artificial intelligence to process spoken language, even multiple languages.
So artificial intelligence has already infiltrated our lives and the threat that one of these artificially intelligent systems might one day decide to exterminate the human race is remote. The real threat is how people might apply artificial intelligence.
Just as machine learning can identify abnormal spending habits for credit card companies, similar machine learning could track and analyze a person’s ordinary routine and detect abnormalities such as that person attending protest groups or secretly meeting with others to work against the interests of the government. Voice recognition systems can tap and monitor thousands of phone calls in real-time in ways that human spies could never do. Even facial recognition systems could be turned against the public by helping keep people confined to certain regions and flagging them the second they stray from their acceptable boundaries.
In short, artificial intelligence is just a tool. The real threat are people who abuse those tools to oppress, intimidate, and dominate others. Already scientists holding climate change data are rushing to archive this data outside the boundaries of the United States in fear that the incoming President might delete historical data that supports global warming. If any leader would threaten to delete data that contradicts the official government beliefs, how tempting would it be for any leader to exploit artificial intelligence to advance his or her own agenda regardless of whether it benefits people?
Rather than fear artificial intelligence, it’s far more prudent to fear human intelligence. Computers have no history of wishing to exploit or exterminate the human race. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for human leaders. If you’re going to fear anything, artificial intelligence is not the threat. Humans are the threat, and artificially intelligent computers are probably smart enough to realize this even if the general public does not.