AI Prophets, Capital and the Salvation of the World

Original article was published by Joerg Lehmann on Artificial Intelligence on Medium


AI Prophets, Capital and the Salvation of the World

If we look at who is talking and publishing about Artificial Intelligence, it immediately turns out that this is a small group of specialists. Nick Bostrom, Kai-Fu Lee, Max Tegmark, Andrew McAfee, to name but a few, can be seen as extremely successful entrepreneurs, so-to-say capitalist emperors (and venture capitalists) in the field of AI, deep learning, and big data. Only quite a few outsiders have made sceptical claims with regard to AI, one of them being British sociologist of science Harry Collins (Collins, 2018). The fact that disenchantment is rarely maintained becomes especially questionable in the face of ‘Artificial Intelligence belief’ and the religious, ideological elements connected to future developments in the field of AI.
Let us, in a kind of intellectual game or thought experiment, examine the proponents of AI research as religious actors. They have developed a technical product which is offered to users free of charge. This product is characterized by the magic of intuitive usability; its operating mode is not understandable to the users, which thrusts them into profane ignorance. The product is free of charge, but not free of cost: the users deliver data which are being collected by the device or app. This can be seen as a process of disappropriation. In an age where ‘data is the new oil’ this means that an impressive economic power is handed over to those who control these data. Big data feed deep learning systems which have in recent years become synonymous to AI. Companies like Uber, Airbnb or other silicon valley startups capitalize on these data; they also inherit the belief in data as ‘facts’ which has been created by the sciences (and which has been termed in 2010 ‘the cult of the factish gods’ by Bruno Latour). The proponents of AI research enjoy social recognition as exclusive holders of the competence necessary to produce rare knowledge, or, in other words, exactly this sacred knowledge which distincts them from the profane laymen. AI research needs computational power, big data, and the work of capable developers of algorithms. These costly ingredients are not often found beyond Silicon Valley’s tech companies, because they require a lot of economic capital. Such circumstances — the economic power behind AI — furthers the divide between the experts and the laity and cements the exclusion of sceptical outsiders who are robbed of their legitimacy to participate in the discourse.
When it comes to statements about the future, it instantly becomes visible that the AI experts act just like prophets: They preach the beginning of a new age (or eschatology), predict severe crises and apocalyptic scenarios for the near future (AI will create mass unemployment in productive fields characterized by repetitive activities, in administration, jurisdiction, banking, or insurances), and in this way they create a desire for salvation amongst those who follow them. The promises of salvation which these prophets utter — such as basic income, negative income tax, or social credit systems — are in perfect harmony with the political and economic interests of the addressees of such messages. Most interestingly, the promised revolution to come is not only an economic one, but also a political one: In the vision of the prophets, the state is deprived of its administrative bodies and its function to redistribute incomes; its place is taken by AI. Such messages serve the compensation needs of the negatively privileged classes and promise salvation from external hardships or poverty. Moreover, the publication of such messages affirm the hierarchical relationship between the prophets and their disciples, because the disciples are held in a position where they always deliver what the prophets need: data. For this reason, nowhere in the printed books and impressive presentations the possibility is being mentioned that the followers simply could turn their back on the prophets and their technical devices which collect data — if the disciples would simply stop delivering data, their servitude would end.
But such an act of mutiny would require politically mature, responsibly acting citizen. And active and engaged citizens … are enlightened, and disenchanted, and don’t believe in prophets.

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014.
Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew MacAfee, The Second Machine Age. Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, New York: W.W. Norton & Company 2016.
Harry Collins, Artifictional Intelligence. Against Humanity’s Surrender to Computers, Cambridge: Polity Press 2018.
Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order. Boston, Mass: Houghton Mifflin 2018.
Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, Durham / London: Duke University Press 2010.
Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, New York: Knopf 2017.