“Unexpected item in the bagging area,”
says a prerecorded voice from inside the machine.
The woman in front of me at the self-service check-out is confused. She wipes her brow and repositions her groceries. “Unexpected item in the bagging area,” the voice says again, as if to gently scold. The woman looks around, her eyes pleading, but there are no clerks to be found. Help is not coming. I stand there silently, spacing out as if I were watching some muted opera about man’s struggle against himself.
This was not the future we were promised, but everyday it’s feeling more and more like the one we’re going to get — Kafkaesque, only without the humor and with more explosions. And it’s moments like these that make one rather suspicious that we’ve reached a turning point in human history. Or at the very least, a fork.
Ours is a present dominated by confusion. A world where the official explanation of events has become so corroded by cynicism and manipulation that conspiracy theories have become more attractive than the truth. A non-linear war is spreading like wildfire across Europe and the Middle East and the existential threat of artificial intelligence is incubating on our laptops.
The final outcome is the stuff of Stephen Hawkings’ nightmares: when the singularity hits, we conjure up an all-powerful techno god that kicks our species-wide death drive into turbo and off a cliff.
But, as I’m watching this woman in front of me struggle against some glorified cash register, none of it feels inevitable. And while fantasies of judgement day are inexplicably alluring, you can see an opportunity ahead.
For the past few hundred years, the systems we build for ourselves have become increasingly complex. Recently, they’ve accelerated to a point where they are beyond our capacity to comprehend, and in some cases, even recognize.
If we allow ourselves to be passive subjects and merely stand aside and bear witness as artificial intelligence comes into being, we will have truly lost the plot as far as our liberty is concerned. The endgame will, as Hollywood has warned, be played out by a handful of corporate beings, which will gradually ease into the post-national dystopian roles that they are being groomed for.
But if we view artificial intelligence as a sort of grand public works project or the next great phase of democracy, a different future appears over the horizon. If we truly are able to create some new intelligent life form that can harness the potential of the human mind — then perhaps it can also invigorate, rather than enslave, the human spirit?
It’s become apparent that crises such as climate change are beyond our ability to effectively confront and address. Our political cycles are just too crude to allow us to think past the next election, or budget.
So maybe AI is the Hail Mary we’ve been looking for.
Ours is a turning point, not a dead end.
Not yet anyway.