With advances in AI (artificial intelligence) technologies currently driving the most important debates in the tech sector, scientists, politicians, and analysts are beginning to envision future scenarios in which AI could bring about a utopia or a dystopia.
Hopes and fears about new technologies are nothing new. During the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, apprehensions that machines would lead to mass unemployment coexisted with hopes that these same machines would lift millions out of poverty.
Today, the transformative potential of AI has led to the proposition of several utopian and dystopian scenarios for the future. On the one hand, some believe that there will be a net benefit to AI, with widespread advances in healthcare, computing, and education. On the other hand, some have suggested that unchecked, AI could end human civilization and bring about an apocalyptic scenario.
AI: utopia or dystopia?
To begin to answer this question, we should start with the definitions of “utopia” and “dystopia”. The etymology of the word “utopia” stems from the ancient Greek language and was coined by the English philosopher Sir Thomas More for his Latin text Utopia.
A utopia is an idealized society in which government policy, law, and social conditions are perfected. A dystopia is the opposite, in which society is characterized by suffering often caused by totalitarianism or post-apocalyptic conditions.
Some scenarios put forward by experts and commentators are extreme enough to qualify as dystopias or utopias. For example, some have suggested that AI could lead to a utopian work-free society, whereas on the other end of the spectrum, AI could create a dystopian post-apocalyptic scenario in which human civilization collapses.
The reality may be less extreme. AI, like many transformative technologies before it, will likely provide human civilization with a complex balance of positive and negative changes to contend with. Nevertheless, posing the question this way is a useful thought experiment to stimulate discussion about future socioeconomic trends.
The benefits of AI
“In what could be perceived as a kind of AI utopia, the paradox of a bigger state with a smaller budget could be reconciled, because the government would have the tools to expand public goods and services at a very small cost,” wrote academic Sami Mahroum for the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2019.
According to this utopian scenario, publically owned machines would produce the bulk of necessary goods and services cheaply and efficiently, eliminating the need for human labor and allowing citizens to spend more time at leisure.
“Where I live, the government owns and operates the machines that produce most necessary goods and services, allowing the people to spend their time on leisure, creative, and spiritual pursuits,” wrote Mahroum, envisioning a utopian future powered by AI. “All worries about employment and tax rates have been consigned to the past. That could be your world, too.”
The dangers of AI
Earlier this year, Tesla and Twitter CEO Elon Musk together with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak were among several tech experts who called for a pause on AI development. In a letter, the experts warned of potential risks to society and humanity as tech giants such as Google and Microsoft race to build AI programs that can learn independently.
“Contemporary AI systems are now becoming human-competitive at general tasks, and we must ask ourselves: Should we let machines flood our information channels with propaganda and untruth?” the letter read.
“Should we automate away all the jobs, including the fulfilling ones? Should we develop non-human minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete and replace us? Should we risk loss of control of our civilization?” the letter continued.
In June, Paul Scully, the UK minister for tech and digital economy, warned that developments in AI could create a “dystopia” if appropriate safeguards are not implemented.
In April, Musk warned of a similarly dystopian scenario that could be brought about by AI. “AI is more dangerous than, say, mismanaged aircraft design or production maintenance or bad car production, in the sense that it has the potential — however small one may regard that probability, but it is non-trivial — it has the potential of civilization destruction,” Musk said during an interview with Tucker Carlson.