It is commonly believed that one day humanity’s future will be threatened by the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), maybe embodied in malevolent robots. Yet as we reach the millennium’s third decade, it’s not the singularity that we should fear, but rather a much older enemy: ourselves.
Think less about The Terminator, and more about Minority Report.
Without any context for how to regulate it, we are rapidly developing basic mind reading technology. Imagine, if human beings had evolved for a moment to be able to read each other’s minds. Where did that go for us?
Find your own internal dialogs, to answer this question. It’s safe to assume that each of us has thoughts that would be even (or especially) shocking for those closest to us. How would those who may not wish us well have reacted to hearing from time to time what emotional rants are going through our heads? Would they have had the discretion to let them pass, knowing them as pure emotional flashes? Or would some have responded opportunistically, taking advantage of thoughts that we wouldn’t wish to betray otherwise?
Evolution has not enabled us to read minds because our existence as a species might have been ended by that power. Instead, as our ancient ancestors were organizing into protective groups, most of us learned what could be said and what was best left untold. Over time, this became a highly evolved human trait that allowed societies to form, towns to rise, and even hundreds of stressed out people to be jammed into a flying tube, usually without attacking their seat-mates. It forms a central part of what we call EQ, or emotional intelligence, right now.
And yet technology is now starting to fundamentally threaten this needed evolutionary adaptation.
The first stage occurred in the social media. Facebook underlined this trend, as Russian platform interference influenced the presidential election of the United States in 2016. And Twitter, which empowers a user to undo a passing thought or emotion which could then be shared with millions, amplifies this trend. Imagine how North Korean officials have struggled to perceive the nuclear “fire and fury” tweet from President Donald Trump. Was it a real threat from a young and volatile US leader, or just a spur-of – the-moment exhalation, a mental flash without a filter that would be best ignored? The famous US-Soviet hotline phone was built back in the days of the bipolar superpower world as a way to explain the motives of each side, so that by any misunderstanding the planet might otherwise vanish under a nuclear mushroom cloud.
Today, in our much more complicated multipolar and asymmetric-threatening world, social media offers a giant, unedited megaphone to everyone who wants to. Social media has become an instrument that can undermine democracy; and yet it’s just a child’s play compared to what’s barring our way now.