WDYT 4/19: The drive towards an AI driven world – Is there some kind of romantization of a world without coincidence?

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Remember the time when you were just thinking about a new book, only to have Facebook pop up an ad for the exact one you had in mind? Or the time you had a chat with a friend about a drone, for it to show up on your Facebook sponsored feed?

Just a crazy coincidence, right?

In the dawn of the AI era, the saying ‘there are no coincidences’ has never had more truth to it. AI-powered Self-driving cars take us to AI-powered grocery stores that can reliably predict what item will be purchased off which shelf and calculate your bill as you leave the shop. And these aren’t the crowning achievements of technology.

With the help of machine-learning and neural networks technology, AI is (in specific areas) becoming cognitively superior to human. Chess- or Starcraft-playing AI can put even the world’s champions to shame and technology is slowly but certainly embodying the essence of specific areas which we sometimes mix-up with human intelligence.

There is some strange, almost romantic fascination with the power of AI and predictive technology. Those AI-powered grocery stores would certainly make shopping feel easier than a breeze, especially for those with social anxiety or for when you’re just having one of those days. The idea of a happier, „better“ and more organized world with the help of technology isn’t new. Let’s walk down memory lane and think about the Minority Report: a staple of modern sci-fi that paints a world where technology abolishes coincidence with the ultimate goal of reducing the crime rate.

Learning and prediction are two of the main components of machine learning. Human behavior is also predictable – not by fate or some unknown supernatural power (as far as current evidence goes) – but by simple neurobiology and by connections in behavioral data we might not be able to „see“. A series of experiments conducted by psychologist Benjamin Libet cast a shadow on the notion of „free will“ by showing that the brain „registers“ the decision to make a movement long before a person has made the conscious choice to move.

As technology evolves at a rapid pace, machine learning algorithms become increasingly complex, able to tackle and process an immense number of variables and amount of data generated by the world around us. Those self-driving cars continuously adjust their trajectory to avoid other vehicles on the road and update their velocity and direction thanks to real-time information. The ultimate goal? To avoid unwanted coincidences.

Do you prefer a world without coincidences?

Wrong question, but in a world without coincidence would certainly be more orderly. It’s entirely feasible that, in the future, AI technology will be powerful enough to predict human behavior and implement strategies to prevent unwanted coincidences – a queue at the store or a crash on the streets. But what this also achieves is maybe the complete and utter abolishment of all coincidence. Everything is calculated, predicted and the model adjusted to account for last-minute changes or variability. If something happens, it’s not the hand of God that drives it – it’s the neural network of your (hopefully) friendly neighborhood AI.

Does this mean we should be scared of this progress or rather, embrace it for what it offers – a world of orderly chaos? What do you think?

Christian is a manager, activist, author, lecturer and curator. https://christianhei.se

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