We don’t need to wait for the singularity before artificial intelligence becomes capable of turning the world into a dystopian nightmare. AI-branded algorithms are already serving up new portions of fresh hell on a regular basis. But instead of worrying about run-away computers, we should be worrying about the entrepreneurs that feed them the algorithms, and the consumers who mindlessly execute them.
It’s not that Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, et al are wrong to ponder whether Skynet might one day decide that humankind is a bug in the code of the universe that should be eliminated. In much the same way that evangelicals aren’t necessarily wrong to believe that the rapture will at some point prove the end of history. Having faith in supernatural stories about vengeful deities condemning us all to an eternity of misery is a bedrock pastime since the cognitive revolution. Precisely because there’s no scope for refuting such a story today.
It’s just that such a preoccupation with the possible calamities of tomorrow might distract us from dealing with the actual disasters of today. And algorithmic disasters are not only already here, but growing in scale, impact, and regularity.
A growing body of work is taking the algorithms of social media to task for optimizing for addiction and despair. Whipping its users into the highest possible state of frenzy, anxiety, and envy. Because that’s the deepest well of engagement to draw from.