Liam Dann: AI and new tech boom offer at least one upside
Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. Films like The Terminator, The Matrix and Blade Runner offered specific warnings about a grim AI-led future. Photo / 123rf OPINION: The problem wont be smart computers, it will be stupid humans. Its always the same with new technology. Its a story as old as stories - Pandoras Box, the biblical Tree of Knowledge, the Golem or Frankensteins monster - humans always stuff it up. The printing press was a wonderful invention, still going strong in my industry. But its arrival heralded a social media revolution that really puts TikTok in the shade. What turned out to be about 200 years of religious war began in Europe within 20 years of its invention. Artificial intelligence (AI) could be a wonderful new tool for humanity, but like most people right now I am pessimistic about the disruption and radical social change its about to cause. I am a caring, sharing, inclusive sort of columnist - so when I say humans are stupid, I mean all of us collectively. Individually, humans are mostly very nice. But we seem evolutionarily hard-wired to embrace any new tool we are offered, even if we are forewarned of the risk. And, boy, were we forewarned about this one. People used to complain that the future hadnt delivered us the flying car and space-travelling utopia it promised in the 1960s. Well, my generation didnt grow up on The Jetsons as much as Blade Runner , The Terminator and The Matrix . So I suppose I feel a bit sanguine about the dystopian stuff. Ive been expecting it for a while. All these popular films offered specific warnings about a grim AI-led future. Even as early as the 1940s, author Isaac Asimov was so sure that we were going to destroy ourselves with artificial intelligence that he came up with three fundamental laws to keep us safe. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Now that we actually have smart computers, are we applying these rules? No of course not. Apparently, they arent practical for technical reasons, they are too vague and can cause moral dilemmas. At least thats what ChatGPT told me. But this isnt meant to be another column of dystopian warning about AI taking our jobs or ruining art. It started out as an attempt to avoid writing about inflation and interest rates this week, after the deluge of OCR analysis weve just had. By that measure, I suspect Im about to fail. If humans were collectively a bit smarter, we might have decided to park the rapid development of AI for a few years while we learned to cope with the social disruption of the internet and social media. Its not like there arent plenty of other things to focus on. Maybe we could have put a bit more focus on decarbonisation, clean energy, curing cancer and understanding viruses. We chip away at that stuff but solving longstanding problems is a bit less exciting than the kind of tech that creates bright, shiny new toys to play with. We could blame capitalism but thats just a reflection of our own obsessions - the money follows a path that will make more money. The money is flowing to AI now. There is a tech boom under way in the US that is moving with speed the green energy sector can only dream of. The tech-dominated Nasdaq index is in bull market territory, up 22 per cent for the year to date. The more traditional Dow Jones and S&P 500 indexes have seen roughly zero growth this year. Those two indexes are full of real-world companies struggling with inflation costs while high-interest rates do their recessionary work and consumer spending falls. A new tech boom is great for investors and could even be good for our KiwiSaver accounts, I guess. But what does it mean for the real economy? Equity investors - especially in tech - look ahead of current performance to the potential for future earnings. They clearly feel confident that AI is about to cross over from novelty value to real business value. While weve been worrying about kids cheating on essays, artistic copyright and some other valid concerns (like robot wars), AI is also being applied to boring business and manufacturing processes in ways that could be quite good for us. AI has enormous potential to remove costs and boost productivity. No one makes movies about cyborgs with robotic Austrian accents doing the back-end stuff. Ill be back... to optimise your supply chain. Thats the kind of technological progress we do want. AI can analyse the worlds power usage and find inefficiencies to reduce our energy bills - with obvious spin-offs for helping the environment. It might be a bit optimistic to bank on it solving climate change but in the short term, it should be a disinflationary force. It could deliver the kind of benign economic stability that we enjoyed through the 1990s and early 2000s as computing and the internet were rapidly adopted. Anyway (I knew this column would end up back here), while I wait for our robot overlords to decide humanity is an unnecessary nuisance, I am hopeful that they might deliver us from high inflation. Interest rates might even come down. Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. NZ Aerospace Summit in Christchurch hit by protest - which promises escalation tomorrow.