A.I. will serve humans—but only about 1% of them

AI is leaving human needs and democracy behind in its race to accomplish its current profit-generating goals.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but for now it is: AI’s primary purpose is to maximize profits. For all of the predictions of its benefits to society, right now, that’s just window-dressing—a pie-in-the-sky vision of a world we don’t actually inhabit. While some like Elon Musk issue dire warnings against finding ourselves beneath the silicon thumbs of robot overlords, the fact is we’re already under threat. As long as AI is dedicated to economic goals and not societal concerns, its tunnel vision is a problem. And as so often seems to be the case these days, the benefits will go to the already wealthy and powerful.


Right now, while artificial intelligence is focusing on profit-generation, natural intelligence has proven to be more than up to the task of manipulating it, as if sneaking up behind someone distracted by a shiny object.

We’re coming to understand just how adroitly AI can be played as we learn more and more about Russia’s manipulation of social media during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook’s much-lauded AI was working to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible,” as Facebook's first president Sean Parker recently put it to Mike Allen. After all, as we’ve often been told, “You’re not the customer—you’re the product” meant to draw advertisers to the platform. Cleverly parsing our newsfeeds for clues to our most addictive interests and associations, Facebook’s AI somehow completely failed to notice it was being gamed by Russia, as noted in this stunning exchange between Senator Al Franken and Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch:

 

What neither man explicitly says is that it was not the job of Facebook’s AI to do anything but maximize the platform’s profits. Democracy? Not Facebook’s problem—until it was. Stretch’s classic tech-speak/euphemism is that Facebook’s algorithms should have had a “broader lens.”

This lack of a broader lens is at the root of growing concerns that automation is going to mean the loss of a significant number of jobs. Katherine Dempsey, writing for The Nation, discussed the issue via email with deep-learning expert Yoshua Bengio, and he summed up the end game this way:

“AI will probably exacerbate inequalities, first with job disruptions—a few people will benefit greatly from the wealth created, [while] a large number will suffer because of job loss—and second because wealth created by AI is likely to be concentrated in a few companies and a few countries.”

The future currently under construction is frightening if you’re not among those few people. Dempsey cites a McKinsey & Company report, 'A Future That Works', describing a time in which fewer actually will. According to that report, 51% of all the work done in the U.S. economy could be automated at a savings for companies—and loss in workers’ salaries—of $2.7 trillion. While only about 5% of all occupations could be fully automated, about a third of the work in 60% of them can be taken over by machines.


(MCKINSEY & COMPANY)

Dempsey also notes that AI is reinforcing existing biases. Its mistakes may be attributable to the narrowness of programmers’ intentions and sensitivities, or not, but the algorithms are just not that smart so far. The New York Times cites Google Photos tagging black people as gorillas, the algorithms in Nikon cameras assuming Asian people are blinking, and a terrifying expose by ProPublica revealing that AI is being used to identify future criminals.


(PROPUBLICA)

A Princeton study found that a “machine-learning program associated female names more than male names with familial attributes such as ‘parents’ and ‘wedding.’ Male names had stronger associations with career-related words such as ‘professional’ and ‘salary.’” No surprise then that, as a Carnegie Mellon study found, Google is targeting ads for high-paying jobs primarily at men. Still, as Michael Carl Tschantz of the International Computer Science Institute admits, “We can’t look inside the black box that makes the decisions.”

And there’s the problem at its basic level. As long as AI is primarily dedicated to advancing economic goals, its workings are likely to remain largely proprietary and thus unavailable for scrutiny—that's assuming its creators even know how it works. Our best—and maybe only—defense against this danger to our society is to educate ourselves and our children about AI and machine-learning technology so we aren’t treating AI as some sacred form of modern magic whose workings and effects we’re forced to unquestioningly accept. Forget robot overlords for now—it’s the short-sighted greed of our human ones that should worry us.

 

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.