Thursday, January 09, 2020

Re-engineering Humanity by Brett Frischmann and Evan Seliger - slippery slope argument...

Mildly dystopian critique of technology and AI that suggests that we are on a slippery slope as technology steals into our lives, resulting, not in enlightenment but ‘cheap bliss’ and a loss of control and judgement. It is not that we are creating robots but that we are becoming more robotic through what they call techno-engineering.
Like Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and McLuhan, the authors claim that we are being lulled into outsourcing to technology allowing its allure to trap us into its patterns, not ones we freely choose, but patterns of surveillance and obedience. This gradual creep of technology destroys our humanity as contemporary technology invades our minds at three levels; micro- fitness trackers, meso- smart transport and macro- Facebook.
Nicholas Carr in the Foreward, describes the book as a ‘balanced examination…’ but I'm not convinced. It is singular in intent and displays the anti-corporate line that is common in academia. The tech companies are the ‘Frightful Five’ and Taylorism is critiqued to death but, in the end, a bit of a straw man. True, we fetishize technology, or at least the devices, but the idea that Taylorism and Fordism (those old canards) make us impotent puppets is a stretch. Learning faster, saving time and productivity seem like admirable aims to me. There are plenty of administrative and repetitive tasks, student support and marking in education for example, that could do with a dose of efficiency.
Surveillance creep is weakly argued through examples like Fitbits and tracking kids at school, where the benefits seem to be ignored in favour of a position on privacy that few would get worked up about. That aside, it perks up on the dangers of passivity, decreased agency, decreased responsibility, increased ignorance and detachment. Drone parents and brain sensors test moral boundaries, although the usual argument that GPS weakens cognitive control is now a bit tired. 
The Chapter on extended mind theory; extended body, extended cognition, distributed cognition and cognitive technology is informative. Boden, Chalmers, Clark are all explained in detail – how the mind or consciousness can be redefined and widened by technology. This cleverly opens the door for the slippery slope arguments as they rough up mass media and, inevitably ‘surveillance capitalism’ is invoked, before beating up Facebook, the IoT and the quantified self.
They see themselves as policing determinism and fighting harmful influence through two principles:
1.     Freedom to be off
2.     Freedom from engineered determinism
Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ is constantly hauled in and although a fine thought experiment, it is doubtful that it has more than instrumental use to bolster the dystopian future they fear. 
Their suggested new framework cleverly proposes a reverse Turing test, where we test to see if we humans are becoming machines. This drifts off into a discussion of free will and engineered determinism but I fear that good philosophy has been sacrificed on the altar of their slippery slope hypothesis.
It does have some innovative ideas, such as a BBC style social network and more mainstream ideas like net neutrality and legal reforms strengthening the rights of individuals and regulation. They end, for example, with GDPR’s principle of consent as a good example of how things should evolve. But all too often it slips down its own slippery slope towards giving good old capitalism, markets, Taylorism and Fordism a kicking. 
To be fair, their case is detailed and well argued. I found the book thought provoking and although it clearly has some truths, the slippery slope is, in reality, perhaps more of a dialectic between minds and machines. By presenting a rather one-sided analysis, largely ignoring the benefits of new technology, they weaken their objectivity. That said, it is a good exposition of what could be called a weak dystopian position, stopping short of the full dystopian visions of an existential AI apocalypse.

This book will also introduce you to some interesting thinkers such as Searle, Weizenbaum, Chalmers, Clark, Nozick and many others but Dennett seems like a bizarre omission. 

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