The Culture of AI: Everyday Life and the Digital Revolution

Professor Anthony Elliott is Dean of External Engagement at the University of South Australia, where he is Executive Director of the Hawke EU Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence and Network, and Research Professor of Sociology. UCD School of Sociology (PI: Assoc Prof Iarfhlaith Watson) in collaboration with UCD Discovery, were recently awarded UCD Research seed funding to enable Prof Elliott to visit UCD. Here we review his latest book, The Culture of AI: Everyday Life and the Digital Revolution.

 

The late luminary Stephen Hawking predicted that “the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity”.

In his latest book, The Culture of AI, Prof Anthony Elliott furthers this debate, exploring the impact on a society now “guided, sorted, tracked, traced, tagged and mapped” by artificial intelligence.

No longer the domain of Hollywood blockbuster fantasy, AI is instead the “metamorphosis of all technology” that is “increasingly central to our everyday lives”.

Smartphones, smart homes, Fitbits, social media, real news, fake news - how are we as human beings coping with “a world overloaded with information”?

A sociology professor at the University of South Australia, Elliott’s forensic research looks at how our culture is potentially influenced by AI - from lethal autonomous weapons to Orwellian “watching technologies” to capturing endless selfies.

There are definitely positives and these are to be celebrated. AI is being used to track fish in the Great Barrier Reef, protect biodiversity in the Amazon and deter animals from entering endangered habitats using sensors. Research is at an advanced stage for robots powered by AI to clear the oceans. AI is fighting global terrorism through supercomputer intelligence.

But there are concerns too. Citing research studies demonstrating that AI has transformed everything from our democratic processes to our love lives, Elliott argues that the rise of digital life is “profoundly changing relations” between the public, political and global on the one hand and the private, sexual and psychological on the other.

One of the starkest questions he poses is, “Will robots destroy jobs?” The short answer he believes is most likely “yes”.

“Robotics are heavily impacting on the economy, destroying low paid jobs and increasingly eating away at high skill occupations as people are increasingly replaced by intelligent algorithms,” he writes, describing robotics as “largely collar blind”.

Elliott gives examples including the robot bricklayer released by NY-based Construction Robotics  in 2017 which can lay 3,000 bricks a day compared to the 500 of an average construction worker.

And remarkably, one of the most celebrated legal brands in America is not a traditional law firm but an automated tax preparation service called legalzoom.com.

Predicting that the rising AI tide may lift some boats - while sinking others, he writes: “The global digital economy is creating more monopolies and resulting in greater income gaps between rich and poor”.

Another AI development highlighted, which made headlines in 2018, was when Cambridge Analytica was found to have harvested data from millions of Facebook profiles to influence voter behaviour in the 2016 American presidential election. 

Far from being an anomaly, Elliott calls social media data mining “the DNA of the platform economy”. Recording and measuring citizens’ personal information has “become fodder to the business of politics, elections and votes”.

Don’t expect to be notified when this is happening, either.

He writes that “the personal information of citizens is routinely bought and sold without the knowledge of the individuals concerned. The result includes major threats to human freedom and privacy as corporate surveillance over the private and public lives of citizens develops unchecked.”

Referencing “big nudging: the blending of big data with nudging”, he muses that the sociological trend of AI “may be a shift from the programming of computers to the programming of people”.

Moore’s Law - the so-called doubling of computer power every two years - may have already reached an end point, just fifty years after the term was coined. Perhaps the public lacks “digital understanding”, having been blindsided by this speed. But we still play our part in the culture.  Along with “invisible” surveillance, Elliott talks of “sousveillance” - or surveillance “from below” - which includes clicking “Like”, “Favourite” and “Retweet”. By engaging publicly on social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram people “have become caught up in a wider process of self-regulation and self-mobilising”.

Examining how AI culture impacts on “the self”, Elliott cites research into social disconnection, anxiety about intimacy and “the cult of digital exhibitionism”.

Studies suggest selfie culture “oversimplifies the self” and is connected to the rise of narcissism, addiction, mental illness and even suicide.

AI culture potentially threatens both life and love. A Californian sex-tech company Abyss Creations is building sex robots. But the prediction by British author David Levy that marriages between humans and robots will be commonplace by 2050 is “unlikely” says Elliott.

And there is plenty we can do to reverse negative AI imprints on our culture, like develop digital literacy, e-safety and an understanding of how technology  impacts on democratic rights and responsibilities. There is even good news about fake news; the same enabling technologies spreading misinformation can be used to counter it. Though the culture of AI presents “huge challenges” for democracies, the sooner government policies and legislation put countries on a firmer digital footing the better. Because, as Elliott notes, “The future, as morphed by new technologies, has most definitely arrived”.

This article was brought to you by the UCD Institute for Discovery - fuelling interdisciplinary research collaborations in UCD.