Artificial Intelligence (AI) has pervaded almost every aspect of our lives. Those who might think that AI is still far away from their lives need only to look at their mobile phones to see how it works. Whenever they search for anything, they are using an AI machine lying somewhere on the Internet, and there are countless ways in which programs or algorithms can manipulate data. Even computer scientists can hardly imagine the possibilities. AI used to occupy a lot of space in the news media, until, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic took over. Nonetheless, the technology and its power are still there, and its reach and its growing role in our lives will only increase.
The rapid evolution of AI has prompted scholars to speculate on if – or when – the technology will become “conscious”, capable of everything that a human being can do such as thinking, feeling, talking and understanding. The point at which machines will presumably reach and then surpass our collective intelligence and continue on their own without our intervention is known as the “technological singularity”, a term coined by the polymath John von Neumann and expanded upon by the computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, who has estimated that this point will probably occur in the year 2045. This is not all that far in the future. Of course, other scholars have different opinions, with some arguing it will never happen.
Even though the concept of technological singularity is still controversial, what is not disputed is that some forms of AI are already working and are having a major impact in many spheres of life all over the world. As with every kind of game-changing technology, this has prompted many to ponder about how to regulate its use. The automobile, for example, has been one of the most heavily regulated technologies ever. Consider traffic laws, emission standards, and many other rules and standards applying to vehicles. So, it is not surprising that regulations will have to be put in place for AI to become safe and beneficial to all of us.
The problem is that, as AI is a relatively new form of technology, there is no consensus on what form regulations should take. One of the main differences between AI and the automobile is that the latter is not a symbolic or semantic technology. This means that what AI does is manipulate and process symbols that have meanings. This has far-reaching implications: It means that AI can become more intimate with or embedded in our lives as it can process our thoughts. The car, on the contrary, cannot do this yet, unless of course it is equipped with the latest AI technology. A vehicle, for example, could be programmed to keep the driver focused on driving so that he or she does not become drowsy. This would certainly require a high level of AI technology. This shows how AI is semantic in the sense that it can interact with our thoughts and feelings.
The fact that AI can deal directly with thought makes it very important that there should be an effective way to regulate it; otherwise, if untrammeled, the technology could lead to thought or behavior control, threatening our dignity and our humanity. As social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School has shown, such control of thought and behavior is possible when AI manipulates data that we leave whenever we engage with one another online. Giant corporations such as Google collect a vast amount of data from users every day. By using AI, they can predict with great accuracy the likes and dislikes of an individual or a group and what they might do next. This is the most potent form of control, and hence it is clear that the capacity to use AI to control behavior must be among the most closely monitored machine functions.
The use of AI to predict and control behavior also makes it an ideal tool for authoritarian regimes. Here is where the Asia’s contribution to AI regulation could be vital, given the prevalence of authoritarian regimes across the region. It is tempting to see a link between China’s recent push toward AI development and its rigid one-party system. On the one hand, AI research and development in the country is buzzing, but on the other, the Communist Party government in Beijing has been utilizing the technology for surveillance and control of its population.