‘Race to the Bottom of the Brain Stem’: AI’s Inevitable Exploitation of Human Psychology

News & Politics

Sometimes regarding articles about AI I get negative feedback like, “It’s just a tool!” followed by an accusation of undue histrionics.

But the “it’s just a tool” argument is mostly semantical for at least two reasons.

It has been demonstrated that AI can understand human fears, expectations, motivations, and desires and strategize accordingly. By developing (or evolving) theory of mind, AI becomes a strategic player in the world much like its human creators. Unlike human players, though, it will become exponentially more intelligent in the coming years. It’s also conveniently unconstrained by morality.

Second, if it is “just a tool,” it’s so unlike any other tool that calling it a “tool” is likely to lead to faulty conclusions about its capabilities and their implications for human life.

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One such implication, among many others, is AI’s increasing role in the attention economy and its utility as a “persuasive technology.”

Via the Center for Humane Technology:

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are built on persuasive technology, technology created specifically to change its users’ opinions, attitudes, or behaviors to meet its goals.

Technology companies consider factors like motivation, ability, and triggers when they are designing their apps, with the goal of persuading you to spend more time clicking and scrolling.

Having established that AI has developed theory of mind, then, “AI enables computers to mimic some of the ways human minds work, from learning to problem-solving to decision-making.”

Relatedly, Tristan Harris, Co-Founder of the Center for Humane Technology, appeared before Congress to testify to AI’s inevitable use in the social media arms race “to the bottom of the brain stem”:

In the race for attention, because there is only so much attention, companies have to get more of it by being more and more aggressive. I call it the ‘race to the bottom of the brain stem.’..

To win the race, these companies are increasingly reliant on AI to stay ahead of competitors: “you have a supercomputer pointed at your brain,” Harris explains.

Given its exponential learning curve, social media AI will soon be put to use to map out users’ motivations, desires, etc. in higher resolution than any social media company has to date — and it will weaponize that knowledge of your psychology against you to capture your attention.

To get an idea of the potential fallout, consider what TikTok has done to zombify Gen Z, then multiply exponentially.

At some point, of course, once all or most human labor has been displaced by AI, the only commodity with any value that humans will have left to offer is their attention — assuming there is some expected value to be mined from it.

(And we had better hope there is still some intrinsic value to human attention, lest the AI overlords conclude we are an undue burden.)

All of this is totally new terrain for life on Earth, as we understand it, in its multi-billion-year history. Never that we know of has an intelligent life used its creative prowess to birth an artificial form of intelligent life with the capacity to become exponentially smarter over time, unhindered by biology.

Skepticism about its net benefit is not overwrought.

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