British prime minister Boris Johnson addressed the United Nations on September 24, 2019, with remarks about the future of technology that are being called “bizarre” and “insane” by members of the international press.
Johnson began his speech as one might expect from a national leader:
“It is customary for the British prime minister to come to this United Nations and pledge to advance our values and defend our rules of a peaceful world, protecting freedom of navigation in the Gulf to persevering in the vital task of achieving a two-state solution in the conflict in the Middle East. And, of course, I’m proud to do all these things.”
Then, however, Johnson began what can only be described as an incredible message, part warning, and part whimsy, which amazed and bemused his audience:
“But, no one can ignore a gathering force that is reshaping the future of every member of this assembly. There has been nothing like it in history.”
Recalling some of the great scientific revolutions of the past – “print, the steam engine, aviation, the atomic age” – the prime minister said those advances were tools that humans could control. The digital age is different because users are losing that control:
“You may keep your secrets from your friends, from your parents, your children, your doctor, even your personal trainer, but it takes real effort to conceal your thoughts from Google.”
Johnson was referring to the Big Tech company responsible for developing the world’s most popular web-based search engine which is now trampling on its users’ human rights.
In April 2018, about 3,000 Google employees petitioned their employer to withdraw from a secret project called Maven when they discovered its purpose was to pass along artificial intelligence (AI) to the Pentagon. The workers were concerned that “the U.S. military could weaponize AI and apply the technology towards refining drone strikes and other kinds of lethal attacks…”
A month later, a dozen Google workers quit in protest of the anti-American activities taking place within the corporation.
We now know that Google is ordering its software engineers to create computerized blacklists of its political opponents (conservatives) and is introducing always-on commercial products capable of constant surveillance and reporting back to its owners, the government, and law enforcement.
One analyst called Google “the web’s biggest snoop of all.”
Johnson warned that, given the current state of Google’s surveillance capabilities, “in future, there may be nowhere to hide.”
The British prime minister envisioned smart cities equipped with sensors, “all joined together by the internet of things,” that would, on the surface, help humanity by coordinating vital public services:
“Bollards [short posts used for traffic control] communing invisibly with lamp posts so there is always a parking space for your electric car so that no [trash] bin goes unemptied, no street unswept, and the urban environment is as antiseptic as a Zurich pharmacy.”
At this point in Johnson’s speech, the camera operator at the UN panned the other seated members who were stifling giggles and guffaws. The PM continued, quite seriously:
“But this technology could also be used to keep every citizen under round-the-clock surveillance.”
Speaking about Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa, a cloud-based voice-activated communications service, Johnson cautioned:
“A future Alexa will pretend to take orders but this Alexa will be watching you, clucking her tongue and stamping her foot.”
Johnson echoed the dystopian predictions made famous in George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four when he stated:
“In the future, voice connectivity will be in every room and almost every object: your mattress will monitor your nightmares, your fridge will beep for more cheese, your front door will sweep wide the moment you approach like some silent butler, your smart meter will go hustling of its own accord for the cheapest electricity, and every one of them minutely transcribing your every habit in tiny electronic shorthand, stored not in their chips or in their innards – nowhere you can find it – but in some great cloud of data that lowers ever more oppressively over the human race, a giant, dark thundercloud waiting to burst. And we have no control over how and when that precipitation will take place.”
Every tap on our digital devices leaves “our indelible spore in the ether,” which instantly becomes a valuable cash resource for the unregulated data controllers.
Referring to society’s increasing dependence on AI and digital inter-connectivity, Johnson questioned whether or not “these algorithms can be trusted with our lives and hopes.” Seeing a “cold and heartless future where a computer says ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ Johnson asked:
“Should the machines and only the machines decide whether or not we are eligible for a mortgage or insurance or want surgery or medicines we should receive?”
Other highlights from the prime minister’s speech included:
Wondering if smart robots would help humanity by “washing and caring for an aging population” or if Terminators (the powerful robotic assassins in the futuristic movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) would be “sent back from the future to cull the human race?”
“What will synthetic biology stand for: restoring our livers and our eyes with miracle regeneration of the tissues, like some fantastic hangover cure? Or will it bring terrifying limbless chickens to our tables?”
One business analyst puzzled over the last remark:
“The ‘limbless chickens’ could be a reference to the growing number of lab-grown meat companies, or it could have taken inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake in which chicken breasts are cultivated genetically engineered organisms called chickienobs, which have no heads or limbs.”
Despite Johnson’s wild rhetoric and unlikely comparisons, the gist of his message rang true to die-hard conspiracy theorists who see a definite downside to highly advanced computerized technologies, even as they are being marketed as safe, secure, and good for all of us.
Among them is innovator Elon Musk, founder of electric car maker Tesla Motors, rocket builder SpaceX, and Neuralink (a startup that is developing AI mind-machine interfaces) who tweeted only yesterday, September 26, 2019, that society is at risk from smart devices operating beyond their individual control:
“If advanced AI (beyond basic bots) hasn’t been applied to manipulate social media, it won’t be long before it is.”
Johnson concluded with a call to action: for Britons to “safeguard our ideals” and “vanquish killer diseases, eliminate famine, protect the environment, and transform our cities” by means of “freedom, openness, and pluralism, the formula that not only emancipates the human spirit but releases the boundless ingenuity and inventiveness of mankind.”