Home/ Opinion / Columns/  Most people aren’t anxious about artificial intelligence

You may have heard that we have been spooked by recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI). If a piece of software can perform a number of tasks better than humans, in almost no time, without whining, and cheaper, what will become of us? We have been told that the bleakness of our future has made us “anxious". But the fact is even though we acknowledge the advances in AI, a majority of us are not anxious. We are simply not that type.

Most people were not anxious about robots in the 1960s, computers in the 70s, any great automations of the 80s, and about the internet. Some people were anxious, and they are still anxious, and may stay that way, because they are prone to anxiety. And it is they who have been telling us that we must be spooked.

AI anxiety is in the class of ‘climate anxiety’. It is the anxiety of innately anxious people that has been given a name. If it were not AI or climate, they would have found something else to be anxious about.

A quality of anxiety is that it has to spread, seeking new colonies. The intermediary transmitters of anxiety, like journalists and lit-fest organizers, may not be, at their core, anxious people, but they are never sceptical enough of a new anxiety. They may even find it interesting. As a result, they contribute to the spread of the compassionate idea that you may be anxious. It is a wave of compassion that anticipates the miserable. But human society has defences against this. This is why every era has famous anxieties, yet most people are not anxious. You are expected to be anxious about an innovation or a bleak future, but you are not, you are tormented only by personal demons.

Last November, an American organization that has been working on artificial intelligence, including programs that train themselves to mimic human communication, released a prototype of a chatbot that appeared to impress a lot of people. Google scrambled a response. And now a lot of people feel that programs that program themselves to perform a wide range of tasks will influence the immediate future of the world.

The fountainheads of global anxiety, who are usually in the West and never, say, Africa, have moved beyond telling us how millions will lose their jobs. Some of them are in the phase of comforting us, saying that in every age, automation created fear, so it is natural to be afraid. There are cute stories of protests against the invention of paper, the printing press, how in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I denied a patent for a knitting machine because she feared it would take the jobs of women who knit, and how tailors in New York protested the adoption of sewing machines, and of course how people feared the dawn of computers.

Some also comfort us by pointing out that every automation, though it made some jobs obsolete, created more jobs eventually. This is a popular but absurd argument because people who are made redundant are usually not the same people who are hired in the new jobs created by new technology. How then is that supposed to comfort anyone?

Job losses due to artificial intelligence are highly probable, and the new opportunities in this new world may chiefly favour the young. Most people accept this, yet they are not anxious. That is our nature. People also know they are going to die one day, and even that does not make them anxious.

What if an asteroid is fated to collide with the Earth in a year? Will there be mass anxiety? In that case, maybe. But even that, after the initial hysteria, might be surprisingly less intense that we imagine. I think people can cope with an approaching calamity if everyone is going to get hit. This is a reason why AI does not make most of us anxious.

I do not deny that there could be public issues that create anxieties. For instance, sociology students who perceive their bleak future, or many Muslims in India today. But, even in these cases, the cause of anxiety has to do with the feeling of being in a minority. Generally, anxiety is not caused by a public issue, but by a unique personal situation. A village of starving people is likely to have lower levels of anxiety than a child in an urban middle-class colony whose parents have just lost their jobs.

People who do not have anxieties are under-represented in the media, both the old and the new. They make up most of the world in numbers, but very little in the way of emotional influence. The most powerful transmitters of ideas, whether they are writers or “influencers", are driven by their personal anxieties that they wish to give more glorious names. This often makes them interesting and persuasive. Take the fear of rogue AI. A thought experiment of Swedish philosopher Niklas Bostrom, to illustrate the dangers of AI, raises the scenario of a machine programmed to maximize the production of paper-clips. Bostrom’s paper-clip maximizer would create new technologies to consume all resources on earth to make as many paper-clips as possible. It would also destroy all humans because they might switch it off, interfering with paper-clip production.

Most people do not feel this sort of anxiety, but the few who are prone to anxiety have successfully created the fear of technology and machines that manifests itself in complex ways. For instance, at first glance, it may appear that excessive concern about privacy has nothing to do with the fear of sentient machines. But I believe it emerges from the same wound. It emerges from the anxiety in a few that seeks more respectable names.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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Updated: 12 Feb 2023, 10:57 PM IST
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