Mom, this is why you’re afraid of robots.

Hi mom, 

How are things over there?

I heard someone say that the older you get, the more scared of the future you become.
Are you scared of the future?

Not saying you’re old, mom. You know what I mean. 
I think that would be too bad. If you're scared.  

I mean, on the one hand it makes sense. Change is faster and more fundamental than ever. And it’s obviously very important to be more aware of the consequences of our own actions. So we should be critical and careful. 

But if people are only scared of what we’re capable of, that won’t do anyone any good. 

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I’m interested in narrative. And I think that a lot of the fear innovation causes, is caused by the way it is presented to us. 

Take AI. That’s one of our biggest concerns. Have you seen the 2017 documentary Alpha Go, for example? It’s on Netflix. (Did you change your Netflix password, mom? I can’t log into your account anymore.) The documentary is about the team that built the artificial intelligence that beat one of the best Go players in the world. Go being the most complicated game in terms of possible moves, positions and outcomes. 

First we see the team building their intelligence and trying it out against good Go players. As a viewer you identify with the computer scientists at first and want them to succeed. Then they start preparing to play a tournament against one of the world’s best players. The Korean Go player Lee Sedol. As the tournament draws closer and we get to know Sedol a bit more, the tables start turning. Journalists, commentators and the public hope Sedol wins. They don’t want the machine to beat him. There is anxiety. 

And the documentary is making the viewer switch sides also. The AI starts winning rounds against Sedol and each time this happens, the mood becomes more daunting. The soundtrack starts matching that mood. The tournament starts becoming this sad convention of disbelief, instead of a celebration of a team's achievements. And the team of computer scientists sense this also. They celebrate their first victory a little bit. The second one they don’t celebrate visibly at all anymore. And at one point they even join Sedol in celebrating the ‘human’ victory, after he wins a round. 

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Why can’t we root for this human accomplishment of building an intelligent machine? 

At the beginning of the documentary, the head of the team explains that a board game is the perfect way to measure and improve AI’s progress. That’s why they chose Go. I’m no computer scientist (in spite of what you believe after I fix your Wifi), so I’m sure they’re right. But if part of their goal is to get the public behind their efforts, this is not the way to go. They created man vs. machine, literally. Maybe they should have put them at the same side of the table. 

And this point is proven towards the end of the documentary, when it all changes. The team and the journalists find a happy ending. They find a way to look at the AI as something that enhanced the players humanity, instead of undercutting it. They observe that the machine made the human player understand that there are certain ‘slack moves’, he should study. Moves that may seem like a mistake, or that don’t aim at the biggest possible difference in a short-term point gain. But they help you get leverage later in the game. 

That’s the way we like our innovations. The player became a better player because of it. He learned a lesson everyone will understand: there are moves I hadn’t thought of. We want the way humans manipulate their own environment to make us better, not different. We want to stay the protagonist of our own story. 

So if I were to tell a story that would show people the beautiful potential of change, of something like AI, I would put them side by side to solve a problem together. Because that's where we've been sitting so far. 

Feeling better, mom? 
I'll talk to you next month, mom

And I’m not saying you're old.