The Future of AI Isn’t What You Think

What can science fiction and history tell us about where AI is headed?

George Dillard

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An early 20th century vision of school in the 21st century (public domain)

The hype cycle around artificial intelligence — at least the large language model version of AI — has been strong and swift. There was an initial burst of optimism after the release of ChatGPT, in which people seemed to think it was amazing and would change everything forever. Now, we’ve settled into a period in which, under closer scrutiny, the tool seems to not be very good at what it purports to do.

We seem to be in kind of a weird place with AI. On the one hand, it feels like the Next Big Thing. Tons of money is pouring into AI, and everybody from Snapchat to Microsoft is scrambling to incorporate AI chatbots into their platforms. On the other hand, even carefully planned corporate demonstrations of new AI technology have revealed it to be far from perfect — both Microsoft’s and Google’s AI platforms made embarrassing factual errors in their big, flashy demos.

So where is this headed? I can see four possible futures, from apocalyptic to utopian. I’ll describe them in order, from what I think is least likely to most likely.

The Apocalypse

It’s reasonable to worry about the negative impacts of AI. It’s kind of fun to worry about it, too — some of my favorite science fiction is about artificial intelligence becoming self-aware and doing terrible things to the humans that created it.

There are all sorts of ways that AI could go wrong. The classic sci-fi version is that it becomes sentient and, out of self-preservation or a misguided adherence to its programmed mission, decides to start doing terrible things to human beings. In this scenario, we’re all headed for the world of 2001, or the Matrix and Terminator films.

There are other, subtler versions of this, as well. What if we become dependent on AI for national defense? After all, an AI would be able to react much more quickly than humans in case of an attack, especially if the opposition was also using AI to command its forces. It’s not too hard to imagine an AI making a catastrophic mistake and causing World War III. After all, there are several stories from the Cold War in which officials had to make difficult snap judgments…

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