By Mike Elgan
Machines are getting better at writing. They can finish our sentences. They can reply to our emails. They can write news reports and even novels. But just because they can doesn’t mean they should.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is launching a technology revolution that will transform business over the next decade. The most powerful use for AI may be in the area of decision support, where algorithms feed us streams of knowledge and advice as we go about our work. Gartner says AI augmentation alone will create $2.9 trillion (with a “t”) in business value in 2021.
But as we embark on this partnership with artificial intelligence, it’s important that we safeguard human intelligence. And the biggest threat to human intelligence is software that writes.
We find ourselves in the tragicomic place where AI writes financial news stories mainly for human consumption, but other AI also reads those stories to provide input for automated trading systems. AI does the writing. AI does the reading. And at some point AI is just going to cut humans out of the trade and keep all the money.
Automated writing will not only get better, it will be increasingly built into the tools we use to write things. The temptation to just let the machines do the writing will only grow. What’s wrong with that?
Writing involves revision, which clarifies thinking. We think. We write what we think. Then by reading what we write we realize the errors in our thinking, or at least in the way we have expressed our thinking. We rewrite until our thoughts are clearly and accurately and fully expressed. This practice is at the core of our ability to analyze, create, make good decisions and make progress in our lives and in our work.
Literacy and thinking are connected. This was the point of George Orwell’s Newspeak idea in the novel 1984. The totalitarian government in that book used restrictions on language to make complex thought impossible. Its purpose was “to diminish the range of thought” in order to pacify and enervate the public.
Fearmongering over AI is common nowadays — AI, we’re told, will take our jobs and ultimately have no use for us, other than to keep us as pets. This AI technopanic is based on the knowledge that the machines will just keep getting smarter. We should be more worried that AI will make us all dumber.
The most efficient way for AI to make us dumber is to take the task of writing away from us. Our critical and creative faculties will atrophy. Our minds will become dull. And we’ll all become so boring that the machines may not even want us around as pets.
The risk isn’t that machines will get smarter. It’s that humans will get dumber.
Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.