The poet Richard Brautigan said that one day we would all be watched over by “machines of loving grace”. It was a nice sentiment at the time. But I surmise Brautigan might have done a quick 180 if he was alive today. He would see how intelligent machines in general and AI in particular were being semi-weaponised or otherwise appropriated for purposes of a new kind of social engineering. He would also likely note how this process is usually positioned as something “good for humanity” in vague ways that never seem to be fully explained.

As both a technologist and a journalist, I find it very difficult to think of transhumanism and what I’ll call the New Eugenics as anything less than deeply and literally dehumanising.

The hits, as they say, just keep on coming. Recently I ran across an article advising recent college graduates looking for jobs that they had better be prepared to have their facial expressions scanned and  evaluated by artificial intelligence programs during and after interviews.

An article in the publication “Higher Ed” warned that:

“Getting a job increasingly requires going through an interview on an AI platform… If the proprietary technology [used to ] to evaluate the recordings concludes that a candidate does well in matching the demeanor, enthusiasm, facial expressions or word choice of current employees of the company, it recommends the candidate for the next round. If the candidate is judged by the software to be out of step, that candidate is not likely to move on.”

If this were happening in China, of course, it would be much less surprising. You don’t have to be a Harvard-trained psychiatrist to see that this kind of technology is violating some very basic human boundaries: how we think and feel and our innermost and private thoughts. And you don’t have to be a political scientist to see that totalitarian societies are in the business of breaking down these boundaries for purposes of social and political control.

Facial recognition has already been implemented by some law enforcement agencies. Other technology being used for social control starts out in the corporate world and then migrates. Given the melding of corporate and government power that’s taken place in the US over the last few decades, what’s impermissible in government now can get fully implemented in the corporate world and then in the course of time bleeds over to government use via outsourcing and other mechanisms. It’s a nifty little shell game. This was the case with the overt collection of certain types of data on citizens which was expressly forbidden by federal law. The way around it was to have corporations to do the dirty work and then turn around and sell the data to various government entities. Will we see the same thing happen with artificial intelligence and its ability to pry into our lives in unprecedented ways?

AI and transhumanism

There is a kind of quasi-worship of technology as a force majeure in humanity’s evolution that puts AI at the center of human existence. This line of thinking is now linked to the principles of transhumanism, a  set of values and goals being pushed by Silicon Valley elites. This warped vision of techno-utopianism assures us that sophisticated computers are inherently superior to humans. Implicit in this view is the notion that intelligence (and one kind of intelligence at that) is the most important quality in the vast array of attributes that are the essential qualities of our collective humanity and longstanding cultural legacies.

The most hardcore transhumanists believe that our role is simply to step aside and assist in the creation of new life forms made possible by hooking up human brains to computers and the Internet, what they consider to be an evolutionary quantum leap. Unfortunately, people in powerful corporate positions like Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering, and Elon Musk, founder of Neuralink, actually believe in these convoluted superhero mythologies. This line of thinking is also beginning to creep into the mainstream thanks to the corporate-driven hype put forth by powerful Silicon Valley companies who are pushing these ideas for profit and to maintain technology’s ineluctable “more, better, faster” momentum.

The transhumanist agenda is a runaway freight train, barely mentioned in the mainstream media, but threatening to run over us all. In related “mad science” offshoot, scientists have succeeded in creating the first biological computer-based hybrids called Xenobots which the New York Times describes as “programmable organisms” that “live for only about a week”. The corporate PR frontage for these “breakthroughs” is always the same: they will only be used for the highest purposes like getting rid of plastics in the oceans.

But still the question remains: who will control or regulate the use of these man-made creatures? In the brave new world of building machines that can think and evolve on their own because they combine AI programming with biological programming, we have to ask where all this is headed. If machines are being used to evaluate us for job interviews, then why won’t they be eventually used as police officers or judges? (In fact, Singapore is now using robotic dogs to police parks for Covid-related social distancing.)

As both a technologist and a journalist, I find it very difficult to think of transhumanism and what I’ll call the New Eugenics as anything less than deeply and literally dehumanising. In the aftermath of WWII, eugenics used to be widely reviled when Nazi scientists experimented with and so highly valued it. Now it’s lauded as cutting-edge.

There are two ugly flies in this ointment. The first is the question of who directs and controls the AI machines being built. You can make a safe bet that it won’t be you, your friends, or your neighbors but rather technocratic elites. The second is the fact that programmers, and their masters, the corporate Lords of Tech, are the least likely candidates to come up with the necessary wisdom to imbue AI with the deeper human qualities necessary to make it anything more than a force used for social and political control in conjunction with mass surveillance and other tools.

What are the political implications?

Another consideration is: how does politics fit into this picture? In the middle ages, one of the great power shifts that took place was from medieval rulers to the church. In the age of the enlightenment, another shift took place: from the church to the modern state. Now we are experiencing yet another great transition: a shift of power from state and federal political systems to corporations and, by extension, to the global elites that are increasingly exerting great influence on both, the 1 percenters that Bernie Sanders frequently refers to.

These trends have political implications because they have happened in tandem with the neoliberal sleight of hand that began with President Reagan. Gradually anti-democratic policy changes over a period of decades allowed elites to begin the process of transferring public funds to private coffers. This was done  under the neoliberal smokescreen of widely touted but socially hollow benefits such as privatization, outsourcing, and deregulation bolstered by nostrums such as “Government must get out of the way to let innovation thrive.”

Behind the scenes, the use of advanced technology has played a strong role in enabling this transition but it did so out of the public’s watchful eye. Now, it seems abundantly clear that technologies such as 5G, machine learning, and AI will continue to be leveraged by technocratic elites for the purposes of social engineering and economic gain. As Yuval Harari, one of transhumanism’s most vocal proponents has stated:

“Whoever controls these algorithms will be the real government.”

If AI is allowed to begin making decisions that affect our everyday lives in the realms of work, play and business, it’s important to be aware of who this technology serves: technologically sophisticated elites. We have been hearing promises for some time about how better advanced computer technology was going to revolutionise our lives by changing just about every aspect of them for the better. But the reality on the ground seems to be quite different than what was advertised. Yes, there are many areas where it can be argued that the use of computer and Internet technology has improved the quality of life.

But there are just as many others where it has failed miserably. Healthcare is just one example. Here misguided legislation combined with an obsession with insurance company-mandated data gathering has created massive info-bureaucracies where doctors and nurses spend far too much time feeding patient data into a huge information databases where it often seems to languish. Nurses and other medical professionals have long complained that too much of their time is spent on data gathering and not enough time focusing on healthcare itself and real patient needs.

When considering the use of any new technology, the question should be asked: whom does it ultimately serve? And to what extent are ordinary citizens allowed to express their approval or disapproval of the complex technological regimes being created that we all end up involuntarily depending upon? In a second “Gilded Age” where the power of billionaires and elites over our lives is now being widely questioned, what do we do about their ability to radically and undemocratically alter the landscape of our daily lives using the almighty algorithm?  

Republished from Common Dreams and with the author’s permission under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Tom Valovic

Tom Valovic is a journalist and the author of Digital Mythologies (Rutgers University Press), a series of essays that explored emerging social and political issues raised by the advent of the Internet....