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Elon Musk and many top scientists are now calling for at least a six-month moratorium on the development of ChatGPT-powered artificial intelligence (AI). As they see it, this powerful new AI poses a potential existential risk to the human race. If ChatGPT continues to develop, all of those dystopian sci-fi movies like “The Terminator” might actually come true sooner than any of us ever really expected.
Flash back to 2018, and most top scientists were actually much more optimistic about the impact of AI on the human race. In a Pew Research survey back in 2018, a group of nearly 1,000 top scientists were asked a simple question: “By 2030, do you think it is likely that advancing AI will enhance and empower the human race?” A clear majority (63%) answered “yes,” while only 37% answered “no.”
AI, Social Media and the Future of Humans
Back in 2018, the big AI creation that people were talking about was IBM Watson. This was the same artificial intelligence used to defeat chess grandmasters, and it was now being used to do everything from discovering new medical cures to predicting future weather patterns. Ads for IBM Watson routinely appeared on TV, and there was even a big IBM Watson Super Bowl commercial featuring H&R Block.
IBM was a trusted company, and most people were onboard with the idea of AI as a super-smart assistant. If AI is something that helps you do your taxes, how scary could it really be? Even creative icons like Bob Dylan weren’t afraid of appearing in IBM Watson commercials:
What has changed now is that AI is more than just a super-smart assistant. AI in the form of ChatGPT is starting to look more and more like an impossibly smart boss who comes up with genius-level ideas and concepts. Moreover, this impossibly smart boss is able to solve problems almost instantaneously. In the old days, you needed a supercomputer to get AI to work. Now, you can churn out AI-powered work with your laptop.
In short, there has been a real perception change around AI. It has morphed from something that saves us time and money and improves our lives, into something that is quite capable of replacing every one of us. Even the people that we thought AI would never replace – such as a brilliantly talented songwriter capable of evoking powerful human emotions – is now somehow, scarily replaceable.
Did social media foreshadow what would happen?
If you re-read some of the comments and opinions from the nearly 1,000 scientists interviewed in the Pew Research survey, it’s amazing how prescient some of them really were. For example, some warned that humans would start to lose their cognitive thinking abilities because computers would become so powerful. Some warned that humans would start to lose their social skills or their survival skills because computers would be doing all the heavy lifting.
Sound familiar? In many ways, isn’t that what has happened with social media? It has become so easy to use social media on a 24/7 basis that it is actually making us anti-social instead of social. We’d rather spend all day in our rooms scrolling through Instagram and Facebook feeds than going out in public and meeting our friends in real life. We’d rather play video games online than play real games outside.
And, increasingly, social media is changing the way our brains work. It’s almost like we’re all hooked up to a massive dopamine machine, in which even a phone call from a friend can seem like an unwanted distraction when the person calling us could have just as easily sent us a silly emoji via a social messaging app.
What happens next?
While Elon Musk’s dystopian scenario of AI enslaving the entire human race sounds a bit off the mark, it’s easy to see how future advances in AI are going to make us lazy, socially inept, and starved for real cognitive abilities. What student will want to write a college essay when ChatGPT can spew one out in 10 seconds?
Social media predicted it all. It showed how willing we would all be to let the machines and algorithms take over. And it showed how technology, when relied on too heavily, would start to rewire our brains and change our perceptions about what it means to be human.