Introducing a new technology often leads to unintended consequences. The development of the Dutch fluyt in the 16th century, for example, resulted in the discovery of coal tar. This, in turn, led to the development of a rubber substitute called “nylon.” Nylon, in turn, ushered in the era of plastics, which helps sustain our industries, but also pollute our seas and release toxic chemicals into the environment as they decompose.

Now we are on the cusp of unleashing another technology that has the potential to change lives and the power to redirect the course of human civilization, perhaps in an even more impactful way than the fluyt did. Artificial intelligence (AI) promises to revolutionize industries and help us use and process information more efficiently. However, as with the case of the Dutch fluyt, it may not be possible to predict whether such a technological advancement will lead our civilization to triumph or bring us to ruin.

AI is Changing the World

Even in its embryonic stage, AI is already dramatically changing our world. We see more and more AI-driven applications at home, at work, and in many other settings where humans need to interact with and process information. Expert systems guide us through the intricacies of a new electronic device. Smartphones now recognize our faces and follow our spoken commands. We chat with customer service agents online, and may not even realize that the “people” helping us out are nothing more than intelligent software.

Every day now, we read headlines that announce developments that seem more like scenarios from sci-fi books and movies. Smart cars that drive themselves and smart offices that anticipate your needs are rolling out of production, transitioning from once-distant concepts into the realm of matter-of-fact reality. There are fewer farmers these days and more AI software taking care of agricultural technicalities and specifics. 

And the software sometimes does a far better job than its human counterparts. More and more cobots are taking the place of human workers in factory assembly lines while robotic process automation (RPA), in turn, helps emulate and augment humans to reduce their involvement in repetitive tasks that don’t require cognitive efforts.

We eagerly await the advent of more AI gifts, such as precision medicine and more effective cybersecurity tools. And it’s probably reasonable to expect that intelligent humanoid robots, the type we see a lot of in Hollywood productions, will transition into reality as well in the not-too-distant future.

But what don’t we see coming?

The Dark Cloud behind the Silver Lining

Like any other technology that helps solve problems, AI can also be used as a weapon. A recent social experiment on Twitter, for example, pitted a human with an AI hacker to see who would be more effective in getting people to click malicious links. The AI won, underscoring the danger of using it for more effective cyber attacks.

Second, new technologies open pathways to opportunities that may not have been apparent. The fluyt eventually led to the invention of plastics that are now strangling the planet. But who saw that coming?

We won’t know what dangers AI can bring until they appear. It’s easy to be wary of a Terminator-like future because the line toward that end is straight, and the outcome is obvious. Much more difficult to anticipate are the serendipitous developments that may prove harmful, whether intended or not. Will AI, for example, help us find a cure for today’s deadliest diseases? Or will it lead us toward an irreversible population explosion that depletes our natural resources?

The third is the fear that intelligent machines and software will displace humans in industries. It’s happening now. AI-driven robots and cobots are already taking over various assignments in manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and financial service companies. Many more jobs may be on the line soon, especially those involving routine and repetitive tasks. Humans’ best bet is to learn new skills or reinvent themselves to take on roles that are not in danger of being handed over to machines.

A Bright and Uncertain Future

There is no stopping the age of AI. It is inevitable. Can we protect ourselves from it? Of course, we can, at least to the extent that we understand what dangers are lurking beneath its glimmering exterior. 

In coping with an oncoming natural catastrophe, for example, much of the preparation has to do with what happens after the calamity strikes. We can do the same with AI, and anticipate the most probable consequences. Until then, we can only look forward to all the great things it promises, learn from the lessons of the past, and be vigilant about its consequences to our lives.

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