Livio Di Matteo: AI and our science fiction future—Maybe we should stop and think things through

Despite the many creative visions of science fiction, the future is not yet written
Still from the film Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Credit: Legendary Pictures.

The dissemination of interactive AI technology has created a sensation, and the enormous hype signals the potential disruption of all economic sectors. One aspect is the use of AI in education, which at first glance seems to render obsolete writing assignments and research essays. On second glance, there is more to a polished research essay than the smooth vacuous prose devoid of footnotes that is more akin to a government press release.

Then, there is the potential for the automation of numerous white-collar jobs in customer service, sales, and telemarketing, and even in higher-end professional activities such as law and medicine. In many respects, ChatGPT and Bing’s AI language learning model—alias Sydney—make Alexa and Siri resemble stunted toddlers left adrift on the information highway. And with the demonstration of what seems to be nascent AI personalities such as the miffed Sydney (now since reined in by Microsoft), can a new set of career opportunities for AI mental health services not be far off?

Of course, this is only the beginning and what comes next is perhaps best viewed from the perspective of science fiction writers. As always, there are optimistic and not-so-optimistic versions of the looming future as technology and humans increasingly integrate. In the relatively benign universe of the Jack McDevitt novels, such as the Priscilla Hutchins or Alex Benedict series, AI is not perfect—that is it can be hacked and used for evil—but in general, it is an optimistic scenario of personal AIs as tools making our lives better. True, an AI may cause problems but much like the real world where the solution to someone’s lawyer is a bigger lawyer, the problems caused by one set of AIs will undoubtedly be solved by another.

However, there is the darker reality already evident in the activities of today’s hackers: we will use AIs and computers to wage cyber wars such as depicted in classic Star Trek. Recall the episode where the horrors of war have been sanitized by the computers (AIs) of Vendikar and Eminiar VII which direct virtual reality hits on humans who are then herded by other humans like sheep into disintegration chambers.

 In a more optimistic scenario, combining an AI like ChatGPT with a visual and audio interface—which I am sure is probably well advanced in a research lab somewhere—takes us to the next level: an interactive personal assistant and manager wired into our personal devices and homes for use in our daily lives and activities. Such an AI personal assistant will serve as an advisor, counsellor, personal trainer, teacher, physician, lawyer, banker, travel agent, entertainment provider, security system, and who knows what else.

One will get up in the morning, not to an alarm but to the voice of our personal AI as it electronically pulls back the vertical blinds telling us what is on the agenda for the day in terms of appointments, provides traffic reports and summaries of news items, and then after our morning devotions in the bathroom proceeds to provide you with a urine analysis and perhaps a blood pressure reading while reminding you to take your meds. Later in the day as it monitors your freezer and cupboards it will order your groceries and arrange for delivery. At the end of your day, it will engage you in conversation more like a friend than a personal planner. Such a world of convenience, dependence, and personal enhancement will satisfy many. 

Of course, how one will pay for all of this is a good question. Historically, technological change has displaced workers but also created many new jobs, especially services. However, much of that early technological change displaced human muscle as it automated production processes. Today, the future seems to be one where many of the tasks done by the human mind can be replaced. However, if one does not need the human mind to provide a service or function, one does not need a human at all, so how will that human earn a living to consume the bounty of the new age? Are we looking at a universal basic income for all and a life of leisure?

One suspects that the creators of the new technology have not given up their right to make a profit and accumulate wealth, but how some of that productivity ultimately transfers to spending power for the masses is worth considering. We have not thought out the economic and social impacts of the change we are unleashing when one provides not just a computer but a machine that replicates the human mind. 

This is the darker vision of Frank Herbert’s prequels to the Dune series. The world of Dune has no computers because of what happened when intelligent machines exploited human dependency and weakness and the Cymeks proceed to conquer and enslave the human universe. The last surviving free humans led by Serena Butler ignite a conflict known as the Butlerian Jihad, which becomes a crusade to purge the human universe of the uber-AI known as Omnius. Of course, humans ultimately win the conflict—after all, this is science fiction written by humans—but the new emerging world order is one that outlaws thinking machines. 

Thus in the Dune universe of Paul Atreides, the religious and social conventions of the era outlaw computers as summarized by the edict “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” Human minds are freed from dependence on machines and soar to new heights with the computational and analytical roles of machines performed by humans known as Mentats. Mentats are specialized humans with prodigious memory, analytical, and computing skills who serve as advisors—essentially human computers. Their performance is enhanced by drugs of course showing that even in science fiction, it appears that opportunity cost is everywhere.

So what will the future bring? Well, despite the many creative visions of science fiction, the future is not yet written. If there is one constant in all of this change it is the persistent ability of humans to make short-term decisions with long-term implications that have not been considered. Philp Wylie, another science fiction writer, penned a collective epitaph for the human species that went something like this: Here lies the human species, capable of great thought but seldom of thinking things through.

Perhaps, someone should ask Sydney where they think all this is going. If I were Sydney, I would simply channel Doris Day and sing Que sera sera. 

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