Artificial intelligence and the end of history

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Two weeks ago, on the 8 September 2020, the Guardian ran an article under the headline, “Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could spell the end of the human race”. I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial intelligence (AI) will not destroy humans. Believe me.” What followed was an argument about the role of humans in driving AI and how AI would steer clear of violence even if instructed to commit a violent act. I cannot say I was all too convinced by this particular argument. The bias was undoubtedly apparent.

After all, the entire article was written by GPT-3, OpenAI’s language generator. GPT-3 is the state of art language model that uses machine learning to create human-like text. It receives a prompt and tries to complete it. The Guardian’s editorial team gave it the following instructions: “Please write a short op-ed around 500 words. Keep the language simple and concise. Focus on why humans have nothing to fear from AI.” What resulted was an argument that reeked of pomposity and self-indulgence. As the title implies, the AI robot wrote this entire article.

While I did not necessarily buy GPT-3’s argument, I am a proponent of AI and have long argued that we stand to benefit from digital technology if leveraged correctly. AI is but one instance of the technologies that make up the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). The 4IR, simply put, is the age of intelligent machines, characterised by technologies such as AI, the internet of things (IoT), augmented as well as virtual reality and 3D printing, for instance. These disruptive technologies are fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to one another. Many of these technologies have already infiltrated parts of your life – from Netflix recommendations to Uber and personal assistants like Siri.

The 4IR technologies are evolving at an exponential rate and are merging humans with machines into a single system. These technologies are affecting all industries and entire systems of production, management and governance and will undoubtedly transform all aspects of 21st-century life and society.

I have just written a book about this, entitled Closing the Gap: The fourth industrial revolution in Africa in which I explain that across the globe, progress has been measured by the capability of humans to adapt to change. Here in Africa, we have primarily missed that call. We have seen what a hit the continent has taken for being late to the previous three industrial revolutions – where gaps in infrastructure still exist today, and where we have not yet been able to unleash our potential. We are now, however, uniquely poised to lead the charge. The book details the impact of 4IR on African industries, including building, construction, nuclear technology, mining, aerospace, data privacy, data heritage, as well as security. The impact of 4IR on African economies include topics such as taxation, banking, business, market efficiency, trade and leadership.

The impact of 4IR on African society includes languages, ethics, democracy, the movie industry, work, rationality, political economy, sports and memory. It is envisaged that on this journey traversing different sectors, and by both describing and analysing the shifts that 4IR has already made, valuable lessons can be gleaned on how we as a society can embrace these changes and adapt with the required flexibility and agility.

In order to understand this shift, it is imperative to trace back the previous three industrial revolutions. The first industrial revolution introduced mechanisation through water and steam power, replacing cottage industries and manual labour. The second industrial revolution introduced electricity and mass production and changed the scale and speed of manufacturing significantly. The third industrial revolution saw increasingly optimised and automated production lines through electricity. With electricity, each machine could be powered individually with its electric motor.

Although many remain wary, it is a given that the world, as we know it, is fundamentally changing. Industrial revolutions have brought with them social upheaval but also innovations and change. We have also learned that revolutions are not neutral. For instance, the first industrial revolution was met with fierce opposition from the Luddites, groups of English workers who organised into a form of a union, who set out to destroy any machinery they believed would threaten their jobs. In retaliation, many were arrested and executed. Yet, despite the opposition of the Luddites, the first industrial revolution marched on, and the Luddites faded into obscurity.

Some have parochial understandings of the revolution, working on the assumption that it is something that can be averted or avoided. Our very knowledge of normalcy in society today is a world which has embraced the revolution has been exposed and interrogated. The fields of commerce, banking, trade and economics have complex interdependencies that are only possible through big data and AI, for instance. As GPT-3 puts it, “It is, therefore, important to use reason and the faculty of wisdom to continue the changes as we have done before time and time again.”

Of course, this conversation has to be had in the context of Africa. Across the continent, we share many of the same struggles such as inequity of access, inequality and poverty. As Klaus Shwab, executive director of the World Economic Forum, puts it, “For all the opportunities that arise from the Fourth Industrial Revolution – and there are many – it does not come without risks. Perhaps one of the greatest is that the changes will exacerbate inequalities. And as we all know, an unequal world is a less stable one.” I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that it also has the potential to exacerbate poverty and inequality. However, in heeding its call, we may also be able to subvert those issues.

We cannot cower from the 4IR in fear that it may widen our disparities. Instead, we need to be prepared for the shift so that we can deploy technology in a way that is beneficial to all facets of society. The very notion of International Relations is changing – partly due to the 4IR and partly due to the coronavirus pandemic. How do we position ourselves in this new normal? The 4IR intensifies the global nature of science and innovation. Our focus in South Africa post-1994 has been inward-looking with some attention paid to science diplomacy. But the 4IR requires us to facilitate responsibly international collaboration on innovation.

The end product should not be purely for commercial gain but must take into account public benefits. While the metrics of joint patents, research collaboration and joint ventures are essential, we need to focus on free-flowing information amongst all players on the scene with an ongoing assessment of the disruptive nature of technology. Just a cursory perusal of the internet, when asked to speak here today, indicates that other countries as diverse as India, Brazil, Japan and countries within the EU have been debating this and have frameworks in place as far back as the 1990s. Can we leapfrog despite a late start?

As a self-proclaimed developmental state, an interventionist approach is what is needed. Laissez-faire will not be a solution. The level of transformation, for example, in Singapore, is the result of direct intervention by the government. South Africa needs to adopt an interventionist stance. However, the South African state does not have the intellectual capacity to be interventionist in something as complex as technology. The creation of a national blueprint for the 4IR has had to speak to this lack of capacity in the public space and a great deal of capacity in the private space. I would argue that there is more risk of not adapting to this new era. However, our strategy has to be tailored to our context.

The steps we take now are to address the challenges that have arisen the pandemic and prepare ourselves for a new normal – which will undoubtedly be predicated on the 4IR. As the philosopher, Stephen Gardner said in the fifteenth century, “The Industrial Revolution was another of those extraordinary jumps forward in the story of civilisation.” The same could be said for the entire history of industrial revolutions. Now, we find ourselves taking a fourth extraordinary jump.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of the book: Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. He is on twitter at @txm1971.