Franke: The Dawn of Artificial Intelligence


It seems one can’t pick up a newspaper or journal without seeing a major piece on artificial intelligence. Until perhaps a year or so ago, I hadn’t even heard the term except in science fiction and now it gets more Google hits than Taylor Swift’s antics at a Kansas City Chiefs football game — the Taylor Swift phenomenon being something else I hadn’t heard of until recently. I don’t really live in a cave but I would like to.

To illustrate, “Bad Chatbots Pose New Threat on Web” was a recent headline in the Wall Street Journal. I didn’t read the article, not wishing to send myself even deeper into my personal Luddite purgatory.

It’s everywhere. Even my word processor automatically inserted “intelligence” as soon as it recognized I was typing “artificial.” How did it know it was the next word I had in mind? Is my thinking so transparent or is the adjective artificial no longer used in any other context? I know the latter can’t be true because my long-time friend, the best man at my wedding, just got an artificial knee replacement. But he is of my generation so perhaps we geezers still have literary rights to the adjective since we would never use it to modify the noun “intelligence.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I am writing this on a laptop computer wirelessly connected to the internet. My document is automatically saving itself to the cloud, wherever that might be. Maybe there are Biblical legions of angels sorting out all the nonsense we humans write or calculate into spreadsheets. I hope so, because at my age I need all the artificial support I can get … although my knees are still working naturally.

As much as I want to hide from this all, I realize that it presents a real and present danger to our civilization if it gets into the wrong hands and is used for the wrong purposes. Human history does not provide comfort regarding that probability. For every altruistic humanitarian in the world, one can’t but fear there is a demented, hate-driven sociopath seeking an opportunity. Reading too much history can be depressing.

I am privileged to serve as a judge each year at the American Legion’s national oratorical contest for high school students. This requires that I go through sexual abuse training before being approved for this year’s contest, the training focusing largely on recognizing when physical abuse might be occurring. That training is depressing enough, knowing that our children are threatened with potential physical abuse, but now AI becomes another tool in these predators’ toolbox. How do we protect our children from that?

Am I an alarmist, a twenty-first century Chicken Little? I try to stay optimistic but I have young grandchildren who will live with this after I depart this mortal coil. I can’t protect them from the grave, or can I?

While we certainly should strive to keep our children safe, I wonder if we are going about all wrong. The term “helicopter parent” isn’t heard much anymore but a “no risk” parenting approach still exists. It goes beyond participation trophies for the littlest ones; it continues into adolescence as kids are faced with a choice between over-structured, adult-supervised activity or excessive isolated screen time on digital devices. Kids can’t be kids like we were back in the Eisenhower years. We improvised unsupervised play using anything that was to hand, creatively imagining whatever caught our fancy.

Did we get hurt? On occasion, yes. But never seriously other than one broken arm which gave my neighbor bragging rights for about a month. He lived.

As politically incorrect as this statement is, children who grow up in a traditional family with mother and father are much more likely to get there — there being a wholesome life filled with enough resilience to overcome the stuff that hits the fan. Provided, of course, these parents allow their children to learn to face adversity and overcome it.

Author Greg Lukianoff touched on this issue in his book “The Coddling of the American Mind.” He posits three great untruths that have retarded the development of the younger generations. One he calls the untruth of fragility, a belief that any challenging situation is to be avoided at all costs rather than confronted and resolved. It prevents children from maturing through experience and therefore leaves them unequipped to face the uncertainties of adulthood.

Lukianoff wrote this in 2018 before the advent of AI and I am not aware of his addressing the AI threat in any recent books. I am sure others have and will; Barnes & Noble will soon have a whole shelf devoted to this topic if not already. A quick search of the B&N website produced over 5,000 hits including the title “Artificial Intelligence for Dummies.”

I think that says it all.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.