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AI: where do we draw the line?


Artificial intelligence has arrived — it’s opened the door and walked into our lives rather quickly. AI services like ChatGPT can procedurally write essays on any topic, AI image generators can produce art from the aggregate contents of the internet, and AI serves to optimize many of the mundane features of our phones and computers like autocorrect, navigation, and data collection. The world of mechanized intelligence is becoming increasingly prevalent and optimized. It scares the hell out of me.

I’m not scared of SkyNet, malicious machines realizing they could dismember us and take over the world. I don’t see that as something particularly likely — in any case, that’s a simple threat to comprehend. To me, the scariest part about artificial intelligence is the humans that use it — or don’t know when to stop using it. I’m scared of a culture that languishes, atrophied by mechanizing what makes us human.

The creative endeavors that make up the fabric of our culture have been following a trend of corporatization for a long time. Our culture — films, art, music, products — are increasingly dominated by mass appeal. Our culture is one heavily influenced by the decisions of the boardroom, not creative freedom. Real creativity is risky- and potentially unprofitable. Artists and writers are unpredictable and individually unique, but these traits don’t fit into an increasingly risk-averse creative economy. AI is just the next step towards a derivative, comfortable, and repetitive culture that makes money and ruffles no feathers.

It’s a very profitable decision to replace a human with an AI for creative tasks. The way that machines learn is by sifting through the vast repositories of our cultural artifacts and discovering how best to repeat them. Replacing a person with an AI removes much of the risk that comes with their unique personhood and style. However, we also further a culture bankrupt of new ideas, one that stifles any opportunity for making a living as a creative — as a human being. This sounds alarmist and far-fetched, but many companies have already turned to artificial intelligence for marketing services, and some are considering the use of AI for making advertisements. The vast laying-off of the creative industry could be a very real possibility in the near future.

What’s the place of AI? How do we decide the place of technology in our society in general? We need to reckon with the fact that every time we mechanize something, we choose to remove the human element from it.

Consider replacing a steel mill worker with a mechanized alternative. Working with molten metal is a dangerous, unforgiving, and short-lived career. In many ways, replacing these types of labor so that the steel mill worker can find a safer, more fulfilling calling elsewhere is the dream of technology. It can be used to supplement humanity, making our lives safer and easier, and free up our time for more complex and engaging things. Ever since proto-humans picked up a stone and decided it would be a tool, we’ve been chasing the replacement of manual labor and danger with efficiency and time to pursue creative endeavors.

Things are a lot less simple in 2023. We’ve reached a crossroads where our tools have caught up with what we consider to be uniquely human tasks, and we have a key decision to make — where do we draw the line between what is fair to automate and what is not? Is it fair to the steel worker to automate his job? Is it fair to the writer to replace her with a procedurally generated digital clickbait mill? If we continue at the pace of automation that we’re moving, we are choosing to replace our economy of creators with an economy of consumers. We’re on a track towards our own obsolescence, automating purpose out of the human experience. 

I’m conjecturing towards an extreme, apocalyptic scenario now, but it’s one that could become a reality if we don’t take decisive action soon. We need to protect the elements of human purpose that we value the most, like creativity, and make sure technology exists to better our lives, not replace us. Technology has a habit of exponential development, and if we’d like to keep humanity in human culture, we’ve got to draw the line — before a machine draws it for us.

Justin Vorndran  is from Osceola, Wisc.

His major is English.

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