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L. Graeme Smith: There is nothing inevitable about the future: On AI and the race to replace humanity

Commentary

Imagine your obsolescence, and imagine the thing that will bring it. Are you a writer, an artist, a creative-class hanger-on? Does it look, then, like a simple chatbox inviting you in for conversation, swinging open the digital door and offering you some tea, its black, blinking cursor an open(AI) invitation for you to initiate your relationship?

Sure, depending on your expectations the first burbling responses that gurgle forth are more rudimentary than deep. It’s ok. You’re just getting to know each other. Give it a few (years? months? weeks?) and those babbles will burst into brilliance. Just a little more training. You’ll have a new Nabakov in no time, and you’ll just be you, struggling to keep up. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style

Is this it, then? 

A nuke, a nothingburger, an end to all things. ChatGPT has, at the least, announced itself with some fanfare. Whether or not its algorithms will in fact end the old world and birth the new, its arrival has, if nothing else, generated a buzz. 

Here at The Hub we have pitched our own voice to the hum. Here is Rudyard Griffiths explaining why everything has in fact changed, especially for the professional laptop class. He cites several articles generated in conversation with ChatGPT—framed, in our editorial voice, as exciting experiments with the future—and published to our pages. The foreword to each reads: 

At The Hub, we firmly believe that forward-looking optimism is an important part of creating a better future for Canada. It’s easy to embrace knee-jerk negativity and luddism, but that doesn’t help us build a better country. We’re determined to embrace the best parts of technology… even when it creeps us out.

But if this system is of a piece with the “best parts of technology”, the case is not made. Every proponent of every new and obviously moral social theory, scientific endeavour, and new technology has been promoted as such. That does not make it true. Something “creeping you out” isn’t a perfectly reliable indicator that it is bad, per se, but it’s a good indication that it deserves a sober second look.

And this new and improving AI technology capable of generating words, images, and audio representations of anything we can imagine is worth a cautious approach. Profits and efficiencies will surely be found. But these algorithms, feeding and shaping themselves on the data and detritus of every aspect of our lives, will reflect, in funhouse mirror fashion, ourselves back to us. Our creativity and accumulated knowledge, yes, but all of our sins and degradations too. 

Do not be shocked, then, if you upload some selfies and receive back child porn. Or if the phishing emails in your inbox are ever more sophisticated and convincing. Or if outright copyright theft becomes unavoidable. If you thought we had a problem with misinformation before, it should worry us that the algorithm has a tendency towards confidently making things up. The list goes on

For all the assumptions that these prototypes will surely improve with time, their particular flaws ironed out as we go, it is worth understanding that the world’s leading AI companies fundamentally cannot control their AIs, and whatever safeguards that are built in are to this point easily bypassed.

Now, the people professionally threatened by these developments: I happen to think that those of us in the “sense-making” industries such as the media take ourselves, in general, far too seriously. We marvel at our own self-importance, delight in self-indulgence. I do not begrudge a hearty “Good!” shouted by those outside the laptop class as they see it slam headlong into the same digital disruptions that have crippled so many elsewhere already.But if overemphasis of our importance is one mistake, total diminishment is another. Preserving checks on power is all the more important when society is gifted expansive, potentially revolutionary ones. Actual human judgment shouldn’t be taken for granted in this regard.

I will admit that much of my own “knee-jerk negativity” is in reaction to the idea of eliminating human participation in art and culture entirely, or diminishing it to the point of pointlessness.To what extent AI-generated output will ever completely overtake our culture is an open question. But a future with fewer artists and writers and musicians honing their craft and finding their expression through the struggle of the creative process is a worse one. The process of creating art shapes the artist as much as the artist shapes the art, and for the better. I am certain that eliminating struggle from the creative process altogether will only diminish the heights of what we can collectively achieve.I am admittedly and without apology a romantic about such things, and I believe the more incentives we have for real, critical engagement that requires discipline and mastery, the better.

Our culture is already stuck in iterative loops of stagnation. Perhaps these technologies will remain merely “creative caddies” helping us to reach new and better summits of achievement in these fields (or more likely, create new fields entirely), but I suspect that outsourcing the hard parts of the process to a machine mind that is merely cannibalizing the collected IP of humanity will result in an abundance of bland, iterative content and a dearth of actual transcendence.And even more worryingly, we will convince ourselves otherwise. We see faces everywhere already. ChatGPT, author of the Quixote. Maybe that’s enough to sustain us. I’m not convinced.

For whatever the merits of this particular argument, it is, ultimately, beside the point I wish to make, which is just that there is an actual argument here to be had about all of this. There are better and worse outcomes for our world, and almost nothing is inevitable. 

Whether the consequences of this new technological moment are good or bad (surely some of both), we do not need to consign ourselves from the outset to the myth of perpetual progress, to the belief that every new development must be embraced and encouraged and acquiesced to. Our ability to do something does not necessitate our doing so. 

“And remember, in a machine learning revolution of the means of production, there will be no limit on the scale or rate of change,” writes Griffiths. 

There will be no limits only if we preclude them from the outset. These technologies are tools, and ones which we ourselves can decide to use or not, and how. 

Life is always about recognizing and choosing between tradeoffs. We get, then, what we prioritize. We live, for instance in ugly grey concrete cities because that is what we have built. It could be otherwise. Such decline is a choice. If we want a more human-centered future, we must insist upon it. 

Hard choices between profits and protections, efficiencies and safeguards, are made all the time. Restraint is not impossible

We could clear-cut the Amazon and empty our oceans and pillage the earth of every resource for short-term profit, but we (mostly) don’t. We could simply kill off our poor and vulnerable instead of providing them with the support and resources they need, but we–wait, whoops

We could replace Steph Curry with a robot, but where’s the thrill in that? We could, with the help of AI analysis, win every chess game we play, but does that really make you a winner? We could outsource every op-ed in The Hub to ChatGPT, but what would we really gain, and what would we lose in the process? 

The point being, again, that there is almost nothing inevitable about the world we inhabit and the shape it takes. What is good about what we have cultivated can be lost. What is bad can be corrected. 

Creating art and culture is as old and fundamental a human experience as there is. Excising ourselves almost entirely from the creative experience and delegating that aspect of our existence to our AI overlords is certain to have some consequences. So will blundering ahead and adopting every AI technology before fundamentally solving the alignment problem

I’m only saying we should take a second to think it all over before we surrender without a fight. It may be easy to embrace knee-jerk luddism, but it’s even easier to get swept up in the uncritical promise of a grand new dawn, just over the horizon, or to simply lay down and let the wheels of history roll on over us. 

Grand, beautiful, lasting, human-centered things are mostly laborious, expensive, inefficient, unprofitable, and require tremendous sacrifice. And yet we have done them anyways and can do so again. If the future is beginning to look a little dystopian to our eyes, then it is up to us to change it. 

Sean Speer: Poilievre is building a coalition of strivers who still believe in the meritocratic dream

Commentary

As someone who has been in and around Canadian Conservative politics for more than twenty years, a common critique that I’ve regularly confronted is that conservatism is fundamentally concerned with the interests of the wealthy and well-connected. It can conjure up images of bankers and oilmen in the minds of many. 

Even though the modern Conservative Party has the old Reform Party’s egalitarian impulses embedded in its DNA, these elitist perceptions still persist. I’ve observed focus groups over the years for instance where one frequently hears claims like “conservatives are for the rich” or “conservatives don’t care about people like me.” 

This hasn’t been my own personal experience, by the way. I was drawn to conservatism as a young person in Thunder Bay not because of my blue-blooded pedigree but for the opposite reason: the world of conservatism seemed open and inclusive. It was an intellectual and social context that celebrated meritocracy and rejected hereditary claims to power and status. It was a place for aspirants and strivers. It was the political home of John Diefenbaker, “the boy from Baie Comeau” and Stephen Harper’s decidedly middle-class politics

One gets the sense that the gap between my youthful perception and the public’s inegalitarian views about Canadian conservatism may be starting to close. Old ideas about the Left and Right no longer have quite the same explanatory power for understanding politics, class, and culture. 

Think of the commanding heights of modern society. Most of them are today dominated by progressive ideas and voices. That may not be particularly new for universities or non-profit organizations. But it does seem to represent a change in the corporate world. The rise of the knowledge economy has produced a new professional class, as the public intellectual Michael Lind puts it, which occupies the middle layer of corporate culture and subscribes to a set of left-wing views about culture and the economy. 

Progressivism’s growing institutional dominance has pushed conservatives into the counterintuitive position of outsiders. For young people, in particular, conservatism is now something of a countercultural identity. It stands in juxtaposition to the boring, predictable, and ultimately establishmentarian views of their reflexively left-wing professor or human resources manager. 

These trends also extend to politics. A new fault line has emerged in the past several years between the major political parties rooted in a mix of ideology and class. The party leaders, Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre, are themselves proxies for these different sets of experiences and worldviews.  

Prime Minister Trudeau, himself the son of a prime minister, is a perfect stand-in for the Central Canadian progressive establishment that attended schools like McGill University, grew up in and around left-wing civic groups like Katimavik, is fluent in the customs and language of identity politics, critical of the perceived excesses of market capitalism, and confident about the technocratic capacity of the state to engineer particular economic and social outcomes. 

Poilievre, by contrast, was born to a teenage mom, grew up in the west to adopted parents, and attended a solid yet second-tier regional university. He’s come to represent a western-based libertarian populism that rejects identity politics in favour of personal responsibility, lionizes the market’s leveling effects, and is skeptical of the excesses of state action in the economy or society. 

The biggest differences, though, between the two may be as much about culture as ideology or class. The former is generally comfortable with its place in elite Canadian circles. The latter has a bit of a chip on its shoulder. 

The former’s emphasis on income inequality reflects, in broad terms, its generational advantages and preservationist instinct. The latter’s focus on social mobility is instead an expression of its own impatient energy. Trudeau wants to close the gap between rich and poor. Poilievre wants to extend the social ladder to more people. 

If the former is representative of Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson’s famously described “Laurentian elite”, the latter may be a voice for the ambitious middle-class products of small- and mid-sized communities across the country who one might characterize as “Lakehead meritocrats.” 

The good news for Canadian Conservatives is that there’s reason to think that the pool of prospective Lakehead meritocrats is bound to grow faster in the coming years as annual immigration levels continue to rise. There are, after all, few acts more indicative of the climber mentality than picking up and moving your family to a new country and culture in search of opportunity for you and your children. Poilievre instinctively understands this point: it’s the story of his wife’s own family. 

It’s also the story of his finance critic Jasraj Singh Hallan who immigrated with his parents to Calgary from the Middle East when he was five years old. His family faced bouts of significant financial insecurity and he was drawn into the trappings of street gangs before a community volunteer helped to put him on a better path that eventually led to a successful homebuilding business and election to the federal Parliament in 2019. 

Hallan’s extraordinary rise to the Conservative Party’s leading voice on economic and fiscal matters is both a powerful affirmation of what he calls “the Canadian dream” and its central place in the Conservative self-image under Poilievre’s leadership. 

If his convention speech from the night of the Conservative leadership result is a sign, we can anticipate that a major part of Poilievre’s ongoing political appeal will be to the Lakehead meritocrats drawn from his own story of social mobility. As he put it in his remarks: 

We will restore Canada’s promise—in a country, where it doesn’t matter who you love. Or if your name is Smith or Singh, Martin or Mohammad, Chang or Charles. A country where the dreamer, farmer, the worker, the entrepreneur, the survivor, the fighter, the ones who get knocked down but keep getting back up and keep going, can achieve their purpose. A country where the son of a teenage mother adopted by two teachers can dare to run for prime minister of Canada.

Notwithstanding this week’s disappointing by-election outcome, Poilievre and the Conservatives would be wise to recommit themselves to this message and identity. It’s one that’s bound to resonate with a large swath of the Canadian population including a new generation of newcomers like Hallan. It certainly would have with my twenty-year-old self back in Thunder Bay.