Fascinating, troubling and illustrated with a Power Point that included some amazing diagrams, photographs and video clips, Dave’s talk took us to some stark, new places.
He started with a look at evolution by natural selection. This we usually think of as only applying to biological and animal life forms. He argued however that evolution goes far further, for It is based on algorithms (a set of rules that define a series of operations) which apply equally well in the way technology and machine systems develop to the point when we may see them as showing artificial intelligence (AI) as in computers, phones and self-driving vehicles. In addition he asserts that evolution can be seen in the development and behaviour of large corporations. (Amazon, Google et al.)
What this means is that the same processes that result in organic evolution operate within the parameters of the environment mechanical systems operate in. (e.g. birds evolve using the air, marine life such as fish evolve to move, breathe and hunt in water.) The same however goes for developing technologies, AI systems and corporations.
A point Dave argued I had not heard before is that not only do biological and AI systems and corporations become over time more specialised and efficient. ( as sharks, dolphins, and octopi have evolved from less efficient organic life forms) so cameras, computer chips and mobile phones evolve while also becoming more dependent on the specific environment in which they operate and again over time they become increasingly brittle, so that a change in the environment (global warming, over fishing, new tech, and market changes) becomes something it cannot cope with and breakdowns and extinctions follow. (What happened to the dinosaurs we now see happening to cameras, high street stores and formerly successful franchises)
With reference to us humans he pointed out we now have smaller brains than Neanderthals possibly because being more social and specialised within our cultures we do not need the bigger brains they needed living in small self-sufficient groups where they had to know everything they needed to survive. With the growth of AI we need remember and work out for ourselves less and less as we become more dependent on our machines.
With the massive accumulation of big data and the exponential increase in computer power we are faced with an AI explosion which is becoming increasingly dominating/important across a range of areas which he listed. A book could be written about each of them.
Finally Dave turned to the development of the big corporations, noting that all of them have an underlying drive to produce higher profits for their share-holders regardless of the effect this has on our greatest crisis, climate change and global warming as it triggers mass extinctions. Instead they grind on remorselessly and blindly as a series of potential catastrophies approach their sudden trigger point.
On that happy note after speaking for a mesmerising hour which included a terrifying video of how in China mass observation and data collection is imposing social control as never seen before, Dave let loose among us a winking, moving talking robot dog who everyone wanted to pet.
Dave then handed over to Graham Stride to respond. He had really prepared well, not contradicting but expanding on all the points that Dave had listed so by the time he had finished he had really helped us take Dave’s talk on board. Here they are:
Finance. Stock market algorithms distort and reward the big investors.
Analytics/marketing, allow Tesco to analyse and predict what we may want to buy.
Transport. Not only are driverless cars getting closer, but all cars are loaded with AI. Huge potential job losses loom.
Defence. Drones and robot missile systems are about to replace “boots on the ground” to kill even more efficiently. Then there is cyber-warfare.
Healthcare. Specialists are replaced by AI systems for more accurate diagnosis.
Education. The invasion and manipulation of young people by social media and new internet based forms of learning bring blessings and curses.
Entertainment and the media. New and more arresting AI based films, video games and entertainment displace TV as a shared cultural experience in the face of Netflix. Individually selected narrow cast news becomes easy to fake and society is polarised.
This in turn resulted in an excellent and thoughtful discussion – if not a very optimistic one.