“No-one is at the controls“: how Facebook, Amazon, and others are turning life into a horrific Bradbury novel
Back in the early 1970s, America was on the precipice of a new and unprecedented technological epoch. A small, square piece of plastic called the floppy disc was about to hit the market. Intel was perfecting the first microprocessors. Engineers were developing a prototype of a cell phone, the DynaTAC. Notably, a once fantastical subdivision of computer science, artificial intelligence, was becoming all the rage.
In those pivotal, if embryonic days, the notion of machines thinking for themselves seemed as far-fetched and futuristic as landing a rover on Mars. News outlets were thrilled by the possibilities. One exception was Marvin Minsky, a mathematician and computer scientist at M.I.T., better known as a founding "father of artificial intelligence." While Minsky believed that A.I. might solve the world's problems, he also recognized how it could all go drastically awry. In an interview with Life magazine in November of 1970, Minsky warned: "Once the computers get control, we might never get it back. We would survive at their sufferance." In one of his more famous premonitions, he posited, "If we're lucky, the [machines] might decide to keep us as pets."
Almost half a century later, we're starting to see the outlines of the world Minsky fearfully presaged, one in which the machines really do control us more than we control them. No, we haven't invented Skynet, the fictional neural network from the Terminator franchise, nor are we threatened by rogue Mechanical Men as predicted by Asimov. If HAL 9000 existed today, he'd be piloting a Tesla, not a spaceship. But in other meaningful ways, our present reality begins to suggest the early stages of a sci-fi dystopia. Google and Facebook track your every move as you float around the Web, aggregating the most intimate details of your private life for sale to advertisers. Surveillance cameras, some now powered by Amazon, track our wanderings as Alexa, Google Home, and Facebook's Portal can monitor our conversations. Make a dumb joke about Robin Byrd and then turn on your iPhone—Instagram may be surfacing an ad for Allbirds.