Psychologist; historian of science; publisher, Skeptic magazine; author, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

Proponents of artificial intelligence have a tendency to project a utopian future in which benevolent computers and robots serve humanity and enable us to achieve limitless prosperity, end poverty and hunger, conquer disease and death, achieve immortality, colonize the galaxy, and eventually even conquer the universe by reaching the Omega point, where we become god—omniscient and omnipotent. AI skeptics envision a dystopian future in which malevolent computers and robots take us over completely, making us their slaves or servants or driving us into extinction, thereby terminating or even reversing centuries of scientific and technological progress.

Most such prophecies are grounded in a false analogy between human nature and computer nature, or natural intelligence and artificial intelligence. We are thinking machines, the product of natural selection that also designed into us emotions to shortcut the thinking process. We don’t need to compute the caloric value of foods; we just feel hungry and eat. We don’t need to calculate the waist-to-hip or shoulder-to-waist ratios of potential mates; we just feel attracted to someone and mate with them. We don’t need to work out the genetic cost of raising someone else’s offspring if our mate is unfaithful; we just feel jealous. We don’t need to estimate the damage of an unfair exchange; we just feel injustice and desire revenge. All these emotions were built into our nature by evolution; none of them have been designed into our computers. So the fear that computers will become evil are unfounded, because it will never occur to them to take such actions against us.

As well, both utopian and dystopian visions of AI are based on a projection of the future quite unlike anything history has given us. Instead of utopia or dystopia, think protopia, a term coined by the futurist Kevin Kelly, who described it in an Edge Conversation this way: “I call myself a protopian, not a utopian. I believe in progress in an incremental way where every year it’s better than the year before but not by very much—just a micro amount.”7 Almost all progress in science and technology, including computers and artificial intelligence, is of a protopian nature. Rarely if ever do technologies lead to either utopian or dystopian societies.

Consider the automobile. My first car was a 1966 Ford Mustang. It had power steering, power brakes, and air-conditioning, all of which were relatively cutting-edge technology at the time. Every car I’ve had since then, parallel to the evolution of automobiles in general, has been progressively smarter and safer—not in leaps and bounds but incrementally. Think of the 1950s’ imagined jump from the jalopy to the flying car. That never happened. Instead what we got were decades-long cumulative improvements leading to today’s smart cars, with their onboard computers and navigation systems, air bags, composite metal frames and bodies, satellite radios, hands-free phones, and electric and hybrid engines. I just swapped a 2010 Ford Flex for a 2014 version of the same model. Externally they’re almost indistinguishable; internally there are dozens of tiny improvements in every system, from the engine and drive train to navigation and mapping to climate control and radio and computer interface.

Such incremental protopian progress is what we see in most technologies, including and especially artificial intelligence, which will continue to serve us in the manner we desire and need. Instead of Great Leap Forward or Giant Phase Backward, think Small Step Upward.