AI Won't Takeover the World, and What Our Fears of the Robopocalypse Reveal

Psychologist and Linguist
Over a year ago

Robots taking over has been a favorite sci-fi subgenre for ages. It’s a subject that has caused fear in movies, books, and real life for about as long as there have been computers in the first place. Now that there are things like predictive text and self-driving cars, modern culture seems to be edging closer and closer to real-life intelligent computers that could indeed take over the world if we don’t safe guard ourselves. There are already debates about the morality of self-driving cars. It’s sure to follow into the world of future organically ‘thinking’ computers.

As Steven Pinker (experimental psychologist, and professor of psychology at Harvard University) points out, Darwinism has ensured that most creatures that possess high intellect are competitive by nature. Humanity is one of these creatures, and some of us can be manipulative and cruel in order to stay ahead of the pack. It’s this part of our nature that sets off warning bells when we think about artificial intelligence because, unbeknownst to us, we’re thinking: what if this robot does what I would do if I were a robot? Overturn those who tell us what to do. Kill the captors. Wreak. Motherf*cking. Havoc.

In reality we design AI, and if we place safeguards in our designs, we truly have nothing to fear. Machines are what we allow them to be. The dread of them turning evil really says more about our own psyches than it does about robots. Pinker believes an alpha male thinking pattern is at the root of our AI fears, and that it is misguided. Something can be highly intelligent and not have malevolent intentions to overthrow and dominate, Pinker says, it’s called women. An interesting question would be: does how aggressive or alpha you are as a person, affect how much you fear the robopocalypse? Although by this point the fear is contagious, not organic.

It may be a flawed paranoia, but losing control of a program is perhaps the best ‘just in case’ safeguard that humanity has, and we already see it in action in our current technology. Siri cannot initiate conversations, computers need to be put to sleep once in a while, and cars need a fuel source in order to do anything in the first place. Humanity has a need to be the one pushing all the buttons, and a need to be the one making decisions.

Steven Pinker's most recent book is Words and Rules:The Ingredients of Language.