Maybe the world is crazy now because machines are running it
Not Skynet, not the Matrix — algorithms are the robot overlords silently controlling us. They don't enslave us, but they do decide what news stories you see, Amazon products you're offered, Netflix shows to watch next.
Most mornings, I ask Google, "What's the fastest route to work?"
Based on traffic, it sends me along one of two highways. Both are six lanes of hot concrete, billboards, McDonald's and brake lights. Google knows which is faster.
There's a third highway to work. It's two lanes, between some mountains and some hills, by cattle and open space. Just off that route, I can stop and walk on a trail.
But algorithms don't care about beauty. Concrete is the same as a tree to an algorithm; and Google doesn't care if I'm in shape or happy. That route is a few minutes slower, so Google never tells me to take it.
Out of control algorithms caused flash crashes of stock markets, currency plunges and, for an hour, some prices on Amazon dropped from $100 to 1 cent. But the benefits of mindless algorithms are huge: traffic moves faster, more Amazon products are sold.
Will algorithms, in the end, help us? Or do harm? Even computer experts are mixed. The Pew Research Center asked 1,302 futurists, academics, coders, and techies about the “net overall effect” of algorithms in the next decade. Thirty-eight percent said they would be overall positive, 37 percent negative. The very people who build algorithms "worry they can put too much control in the hands of corporations and governments, perpetuate bias, create filter bubbles, cut choices, creativity and serendipity, and could result in greater unemployment," Pew summarized.
This is scary. Although not entirely new. The over-mechanization of the world has been making people like me unhappy at least since the cotton gin in 1794.
Look at stoplights, a hundred and fifty years old this year. They decide how to regulate traffic, usually according to a never-changing routine. Or, sometimes, based on a few inputs: is there a car in the left turn lane? Did someone push a button?
But they miss what humans would see: is there a baby carriage in the area? Does an old lady need more time to cross?
No street corner with a stoplight can be as wonderful as one without. People interrupt their conversation to follow the directions of the machine that tells them when to walk and when to stop. Because that feels unnatural, people hang out less.
The stop lights keep breaking up our natural rhythms, our intuitive sense of when to walk and when to talk. They're doing this all mindlessly.
And the brain-dead machines are making more and more decisions for us every day. My smartwatch buzzes me with emails.
The solution, according to a lot of tech guys, is to make our technology smarter. To factor in "scenery" into Google Maps, say, or have traffic lights notice if babies are around. A researcher called for an “FDA for Algorithms,” to regulate them, or a Hippocratic oath for coders — to do no harm.
The ultimate dream is artificial intelligence, which will take into account all information, and create the Best Possible World. But with A.I., we might be "Summoning the Demon," in the words of Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX CEO, who told MIT:
"Increasingly scientists think there should be some regulatory oversight maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out."
For now, I'm not talking about Skynet or the Matrix or Blade Runner, where technology becomes sentient. I'm talking about dumb things making brainless choices. About building, in the words of a new book, a "World without Mind" — or soul.
When I read the Internet — which is most of what I read now, after a lifetime spent reading books — it's sliding bullshit in front of my like a carnival barker. Look at this! Now look at this!
So when I look up from the Internet, I am left with feelings that come not from a human exactly, but from … somewhere else.
And this spins me out. I get amped about Trump, because my news feed sends me endless stories about how much he sucks, how dangerous he is.
The machines don't care that this world feels disjointed and on the verge of breaking up. From the algorithms' perspective, the election of 2016 was beautiful. More clicks than ever. From the machines perspective, WWII was a win. More machines got made.
What's more pernicious is that all of this reliance on algorithms subtly induces me to care less. Even though I know about the prettier road to work, I don't take it 90 percent of the time, because I'm in a hurry to get to my desk so I can stare at a screen showing me things in an algorithmic order.
So I'm vowing to take that longer route and step into nature more. For 200 years, nature has been the cure for the machine blues.
Nature. Most scientists think nature has no will, no direction, that it doesn't care how things turn out, that it doesn't have a mind or a heart. They might be wrong. They might've gotten too used to dealing with machines, which are brainless, and projected that onto nature. But maybe climate change is nature consciously getting back at us for all the mindless machines we've put on the roads. Maybe our record levels of mental illness is nature consciously trying to warn us that all this screen time and disconnection isn't good for our species. Maybe nature in the end will win.
It always has … so far.
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