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Why Is Artificial Intelligence Such a Big Deal?

Now that Warren Buffet is investing $165 billion in artificial intelligence stocks, or at least in companies like Apple which use AI technologies throughout their product development chain as well as featuring AI in their products, I guess we need to write at least one comment about what everybody (except me) thinks will be the future of the planet, never mind just the human race.

Thanks to Motley Fool, here’s as good a definition of AI as I can find: AI is “the use of computers to mimic human judgment.” The term was first used by the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, in a series of sci-fi stories written beginning in 1940, which he published as a book in 1950 I, Robot, which has sold a gazillion copies since that time.

In fact, AI technologies first appeared on manufacturing assembly lines, with machines doing repetitive tasks on assembly lines which made cars and other major machinery. This type of AI is usually referred to as the use of robotics in manufacturing and related activities.

The use of AI also became a fixture for a variety of electronic tools used to validate user access to equipment and data, including all those nasty passwords we give ourselves to get into our bank accounts, our private chat rooms and our email and other communication devices.

The bottom line is that AI is simply the result of computing technology which has become much faster and can therefore search and recall data much more quickly. So, for example, if you tend to use a certain phrase when you write, a device can inject that phrase into a text you are preparing if words which often precede that phrase are being used.

But what if (and emphasis is on the word ‘if’) we allow computers to not only access and amass untold amounts of information, but then use these same machines to tell us how to make critical decisions about such life-ending threats as war, or mass illness, or global warming? And what if we follow one of these decisions and if it turns out to be wrong, we can’t back out and redress the mistake?

All of a sudden, it seems, concerns about the ‘threat’ posed by AI have reached a fever pitch. AI has become a much-published issue in the social sciences, and as you can imagine, most of the projections for the future of AI are filled with doom and gloom.

This week, several hundred scientists and other computer machers published and signed the following statement: “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.” The signatories include individuals considered to be the progenitors and original developers of AI, and if nothing else, these folks are educated enough to understand what the word ‘extinction’ really means.

I suspect that part of this Armageddon-like fear of AI is a function of how we felt about the Covid-19 Pandemic over the last couple of years. Notwithstanding the rampant media barrage which accompanied the outbreak and spread of this virus, however, the infection claimed some 7 million lives, which represented less than .001% (one-tenth of one percent) of the world’s population. The 1918 outbreak, on the other hand, may have caused nearly 3% of the earth’s human inhabitants to disappear, i.e., a mortality rate thirty times higher than what we experienced between 2020 and 2022.

This difference between perception and reality about the effects of Covid-19 appear to be an important factor in explaining all the recent concern about the ‘threat’ posed by AI. Because the truth is that computing technologies applied to the aggregating and movement of information was never an issue until the advent of the internet, and what is really motivating the concerns about AI is the growing consensus that the type and content of what goes over the information superhighway will sooner or later be regulated by the government, which is exactly contrary to what the internet’s ‘open’ and ‘free’ access is what this technology is allegedly all about.

The internet has replaced television and radio as the most powerful tool for promoting and advertising the products and services whose selling and buying makes our economy the largest and most expansive national economy on the globe. Taken together, 80% of our economy is now based on the delivery of services and most of these service sectors are entirely if not wholly dependent on how quickly information can move from one site to another, which is why the use of AI grows by leaps and bounds.

The government got into regulating radio big time in the 1920’s. The regulation of television broadcasting started around World War II. But neither of these technologies were interactive, which is what initially made the internet so attractive as a way to exchange information and ideas.

All well and good, except that every time I open my browser, I am inundated with ads, many of which go specifically to my browser because AI technology allows the creators of those messages to know everything about me which might influence how I live and what I buy.

And those are the decisions which power a 21 trillion-dollar economy to which I will add eight bucks this morning when I stop off at the local mini-mart to pick up a coffee and a snack.

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