If you read just a single opinion piece on artificial intelligence, “The Case Against AI Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” by Judy Estrin is the one.
Estrin knows what she’s talking about. She is the founder of multiple tech companies, former chief technical officer of Cisco, former board member of The Walt Disney Company, and the person who helped popularize the term “cloud computing.”
She writes that the development of AI is being driven by a “small number of tech titans” who are using their wealth and influence to push AI onto a general public that is not yet equipped to handle the technology or its consequences. The result, Estrin says, is less artificial intelligence than “authoritarian intelligence”:
I have never had such mixed feelings about technological innovation. In stark contrast to the early days of internet development, when many stakeholders had a say, discussions about AI and our future are being shaped by leaders who seem to be striving for absolute ideological power. The result is “Authoritarian Intelligence.” The hubris and determination of tech leaders to control society is threatening our individual, societal, and business autonomy.
When it comes to generative AI, the area of the tech that is currently of greatest concern to visual artists and other creative people, Estrin says it could more appropriately be termed “performative AI,” as “it leans toward production and mimicry — and sometimes fakery — over deep creativity, accuracy, or empathy.”
I particularly enjoyed Estrin’s description of how Big Tech feverishly works to make new technologies seem inevitable, regardless of the cost and risks to the public:
Here in Silicon Valley, this top-down authoritarian technique is amplified by a bottom-up culture of inevitability. An orchestrated frenzy begins when the next big thing to fuel the Valley’s economic and innovation ecosystem is heralded by companies, investors, media, and influencers.
They surround us with language coopted from common values—democratization, creativity, open, safe. In behavioral psych classes, product designers are taught to eliminate friction—removing any resistance to us to acting on impulse.
The promise of short-term efficiency, convenience, and productivity lures us. Any semblance of pushback is decried as ignorance, or a threat to global competition. No one wants to be called a Luddite. Tech leaders, seeking to look concerned about the public interest, call for limited, friendly regulation, and the process moves forward until the tech is fully enmeshed in our society.
We bought into this narrative before, when social media, smartphones and cloud computing came on the scene. We didn’t question whether the only way to build community, find like-minded people, or be heard, was through one enormous “town square,” rife with behavioral manipulation, pernicious algorithmic feeds, amplification of pre-existing bias, and the pursuit of likes and follows.
It’s now obvious that it was a path towards polarization, toxicity of conversation, and societal disruption. Big Tech was the main beneficiary as industries and institutions jumped on board, accelerating their own disruption, and civic leaders were focused on how to use these new tools to grow their brands and not on helping us understand the risks.
Estrin ends with a plea that “human well-being and dignity should be our North Star—with innovation in a supporting role.”
She offers a hopeful note, writing that none of this is inevitable “if we use our powers to question the tools and the people shaping them” and if leaders in all areas “slow the frenzy through acts of friction.” Her thoughts are, in fact, similar to something I wrote on this site earlier this year, suggesting that “creative talent shouldn’t be sitting back and watching from afar,” and also the importance of challenging tech companies and holding them accountable for their missteps.
Despite what the tech industry wants us to believe, the story of AI isn’t yet fully written. But as Estrin makes clear, the tech industry has the energy, resources, and dedication to popularize harmful technologies at any expense. It will take much greater effort than griping about AI on the useless social media platforms they created and control to affect meaningful change.