Don’t fear AI, fear power-hungry humans
Story by Big Think
We live in strange times, when the technology we depend on the most is also that which we fear the most. We celebrate cutting-edge achievements even as we recoil in fear at how they could be used to hurt us. From genetic engineering and AI to nuclear technology and nanobots, the list of awe-inspiring, fast-developing technologies is long.
However, this fear of the machine is not as new as it may seem. Technology has a longstanding alliance with power and the state. The dark side of human history can be told as a series of wars whose victors are often those with the most advanced technology. (There are exceptions, of course.) Science, and its technological offspring, follows the money.
This fear of the machine seems to be misplaced. The machine has no intent: only its maker does. The fear of the machine is, in essence, the fear we have of each other — of what we are capable of doing to one another.
How AI changes things
Sure, you would reply, but AI changes everything. With artificial intelligence, the machine itself will develop some sort of autonomy, however ill-defined. It will have a will of its own. And this will, if it reflects anything that seems human, will not be benevolent. With AI, the claim goes, the machine will somehow know what it must do to get rid of us. It will threaten us as a species.
Well, this fear is also not new. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818 to warn us of what science could do if it served the wrong calling. In the case of her novel, Dr. Frankenstein’s call was to win the battle against death — to reverse the course of nature. Granted, any cure of an illness interferes with the normal workings of nature, yet we are justly proud of having developed cures for our ailments, prolonging life and increasing its quality. Science can achieve nothing more noble. What messes things up is when the pursuit of good is confused with that of power. In this distorted scale, the more powerful the better. The ultimate goal is to be as powerful as gods — masters of time, of life and death.
Should countries create a World Mind Organization that controls the technologies that develop AI?
Back to AI, there is no doubt the technology will help us tremendously. We will have better medical diagnostics, better traffic control, better bridge designs, and better pedagogical animations to teach in the classroom and virtually. But we will also have better winnings in the stock market, better war strategies, and better soldiers and remote ways of killing. This grants real power to those who control the best technologies. It increases the take of the winners of wars — those fought with weapons, and those fought with money.
A story as old as civilization
The question is how to move forward. This is where things get interesting and complicated. We hear over and over again that there is an urgent need for safeguards, for controls and legislation to deal with the AI revolution. Great. But if these machines are essentially functioning in a semi-black box of self-teaching neural nets, how exactly are we going to make safeguards that are sure to remain effective? How are we to ensure that the AI, with its unlimited ability to gather data, will not come up with new ways to bypass our safeguards, the same way that people break into safes?
The second question is that of global control. As I wrote before, overseeing new technology is complex. Should countries create a World Mind Organization that controls the technologies that develop AI? If so, how do we organize this planet-wide governing board? Who should be a part of its governing structure? What mechanisms will ensure that governments and private companies do not secretly break the rules, especially when to do so would put the most advanced weapons in the hands of the rule breakers? They will need those, after all, if other actors break the rules as well.
As before, the countries with the best scientists and engineers will have a great advantage. A new international détente will emerge in the molds of the nuclear détente of the Cold War. Again, we will fear destructive technology falling into the wrong hands. This can happen easily. AI machines will not need to be built at an industrial scale, as nuclear capabilities were, and AI-based terrorism will be a force to reckon with.
So here we are, afraid of our own technology all over again.
What is missing from this picture? It continues to illustrate the same destructive pattern of greed and power that has defined so much of our civilization. The failure it shows is moral, and only we can change it. We define civilization by the accumulation of wealth, and this worldview is killing us. The project of civilization we invented has become self-cannibalizing. As long as we do not see this, and we keep on following the same route we have trodden for the past 10,000 years, it will be very hard to legislate the technology to come and to ensure such legislation is followed. Unless, of course, AI helps us become better humans, perhaps by teaching us how stupid we have been for so long. This sounds far-fetched, given who this AI will be serving. But one can always hope.
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.