Utopia or Dystopia? AI’s future impact on society


How might AI technology impact productivity and the standard of living in the future?

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By Matilda Seddon

Human fascination with the future and dystopian realities can be traced back through media, as seen with the continued popularity of George Orwell’s 1984 and into the 21st century with TV shows like Netflix’s Black Mirror depicting uses of technology such as artificial intelligence (AI). Where films like Back to the Future, portraying a utopian society, were increasing in popularity only a few decades ago, darker and more pessimistic realities seem to have become the new norm. With many adopting an apocalyptic view, in light of recent geopolitical circumstances, it could be asked, how likely is it that these dystopias will manifest? Where we would like to imagine a future facilitated and benefitted by AI, many seem to have adopted the Terminator-esque doomsday view that humankind will be left in the dust, with AI and robots ruling over society.

AI is a technology spearheaded by the notion that we can fabricate human-like intelligence to carry out tasks that we would rather not. The implementation of AI in society aims to provide solutions to social problems we currently face and ideally also work to address inequality in the employment system. The industrial revolution and continued growth of consumerism has produced many jobs with a poor standard of living. Assigning these more undesirable and redundant tasks to AI would improve the quality of jobs for people by automating more repetitive and dangerous jobs . While this all seem s beneficial, many have a more pessimistic political imagination, anticipating mass unemployment and the drastic loss of human dignity, counter to the goals of developing AI in the first place. Entrepreneur Elon Musk believes that if AI development continues at such a rapid pace, this might be detrimental for the human race. Given big tech’s entanglement with prominent figures like Musk and Zuckerberg, it comes as no surprise that it is often mobilised as a tool in political discourse. This in turn has likely fed into fears surrounding its implementation.

One of the more plausible concerns related to widespread AI implementation is how society would react to such drastic change. Global responses to Covid-19 have been a clear example of this. The sudden reconfiguring of how we lived our daily lives resulted in many industries and governments being inordinately burdened. Like with many (arguably all) major transitions in society, the under-privileged, lower SES portion of society will be disproportionately negatively affected. Tyler Cowen, economist at George Mason University, has raised concerns about AI impacts on government and the political climate. Failing to properly integrate relevant AI technology into existing systems could result in an erosion of the geopolitical order. While AI has the potential to revolutionise political systems by making processes more seamless in the long term by streamlining systems such as voting or decision-making, it could equally impede politics in the short term, owing to our current models being too far behind AI to accommodate it fast enough.

Another major AI concern relates to the unfamiliarity and therefore the unpredictability of it. Regulators and governments are already struggling to keep up with developments in tech to protect societal interests such as privacy due to the possible dangers associated with uncharted terrain. Cases like the recent cyber incident involving the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) have shown that weaknesses in technology directly indicate weaknesses in security and government. While lawmakers have made an example of defendants in cases involving cyber-crime to attempt to deter future criminals, this does not adequately address flaws in current technologies. While the drive for innovation is crucial, the need for secure frameworks to withstand these changes is an equally important consideration.

Adoption of AI across various areas of society has been varied. Where many have adopted the apocalyptic and dystopian view that big tech will take over society, given enough development, many have opted to steer clear of this sensational thinking and are already incorporating it into current practices. Facilitated by the massive influx of social media usage in the 21st century, the development of technologies like VR (virtual reality) and conceptions of the Metaverse, popularised in part by Mark Zuckerberg, have skyrocketed. Continued education around AI as diverse systems, composed of common properties, but are never completely alike, will aid users in accepting how it might benefit their lives, while also enabling them to be wary of potential misuse. Where AI is often discussed as a unitary concept, each AI is inexorably connected to the human that developed it, the intended user, and what it aims to achieve.

The introduction of AI into society is already well underway despite these criticisms. The need to keep civilisation progressing, in spite of potential political and tech upheavals, is evident. Whether we like it or fear it, the future is increasingly tech and it is the role of the developers, users, and regulators to ensure it is being used to aid rather than exploit. At least for now and into the foreseeable future, an AI takeover will remain a compelling device of sci-fi authors and screenwriters.