Technology on trial: Do AI advances mean humanity is now in its final days? – Yahoo News UK

The world’s biggest brains are grappling with what the wild acceleration of technology means for humanity. Will it create a utopia that solves our worst problems? Or a dystopia in which we’re slaves to the machine? Writer at Large Neil Mackay investigates
NEXT year, if you land at O’Hare Airport you’ll be able to take a flying electric taxi to downtown Chicago. With no carbon emissions, it will be a guilt-free, green flight, albeit a short one.
That flying taxi offers a vision of utopia-through-technology: how science can make the world better.
If you listen to today’s tech lords, this is the only future they’d have you believe possible: one where progress is always positive.
But that’s not true, is it? Set green aviation against Artificial Intelligence and it’s clear every technological benefit is balanced by a dozen harms.
We cannot dismiss the good technology has achieved, from the invention of agriculture, to modern medicine, the printing press, and refrigeration. But then there’s gunpowder, social media, the horrors of mass industrialisation, and climate destruction.
The world’s biggest brains are currently putting technology on trial, including historian Christopher De Bellaigue. He’s written Flying Green: On the Frontiers of New Aviation, investigating how close we’ve come to achieving ‘green flight’. Emissions-free planes would be a landmark, underscoring how technology can save humanity, just as climate change overwhelms us. Only this week, we learned global warming will likely break a key temperature limit: rising 1.5 degrees celsius by 2027.
Christopher De Bellaigue
Then there’s Daron Acemoglu, MIT professor of economics. His new book Power and Progress challenges the notion that technology benefits humankind. Acemoglu says technology has consistently worked against the interests of most humans, and serves the world’s elite, never ordinary people.
Daron Acemoglu
The Herald on Sunday sat down with both, speaking to De Bellaigue at his London home, and Acemoglu at his Massachusetts university office. Their interventions couldn’t be more timely. The world is finally waking up to what AI means. To some, AI offers paradise. Much has been made of Edinburgh University research that AI can diagnose heart attacks more quickly and accurately. Yet AI also threatens mass unemployment as white and blue collar workers are rendered redundant. Britain’s government is now talking about regulation.
AI also threatens democracy: spreading lies, hate and disinformation in a way that makes Twitter pedestrian. Even Sam Altman, creator of ChatGPT, the world’s best known AI, says the technology must be regulated.
If technology is on trial, then let’s hear from the prosecution first and uncover the dark side of progress.
Humanity, says Acemoglu, has long believed “technological progress” drives improvements in our lives. However, we should be much more skeptical. He’s gone back through history and established that technology usually creates misery not happiness. Tech execs proselytise that science always “lifts up” humanity. That’s just a slogan.
“The Industrial Revolution impoverished millions of people,” Acemoglu says. “It made their lives much harder – they were subject to harsher discipline, longer working hours, and a much less healthy environment”.
Industrialisation did eventually lead to increased wages, but only after the rise of trade unions and political parties which challenged elites. There’s “nothing automatic” about technology bringing positive change.
Positive change depends on “redirecting technology. It was political and economic processes which turned technological improvements into benefits for working people.
“The reason why this history is so important is that we’re in the midst of a similar period today to the Industrial Revolution, where a bewildering array of new technology from AI, nanotech, biotech and digital technologies are transforming every aspect of our lives. The rhetoric is very similar to what was articulated at the end of the 18th century: this is progress and everyone should jump onboard and not grumble.”
Today, technology is once again helping the few, not the many. “The direction technology is going could be very dangerous for workers’ power, economically and socially, and for democracy, and how we organise our lives.” These dangers are “masked by a techno-optimism that somehow everything will work out – we’ll all benefit. Technology can be beneficial, but not every technology. Technology usually goes in directions that benefit the powerful”.
If AI brings mass job automation that’s a net loss for humanity, with millions thrust on the scrap heap. Beneficial technology “creates new tasks for workers, new opportunities”. Workers crucially need a say in how technology is adopted and used – rather than billionaires forcing ‘advances’ on society. The benefits of technology must be divided between rich and poor. Historically, that’s seldom happened, and it’s definitely not happening now when a few giant tech companies wield the power of nations.
It’s easy to present a “vision” to the people that technology means progress. Think back to the early internet. Doubters were labelled ‘luddites’. Those doubters are today proved right as globally democracies teeter. “I’m no luddite,” says Acemoglu, “but I sympathise with them.” Luddites smashed machines during the early Industrial Revolution protesting job losses through factory mechanisation.
While some technologies slowly emerge as inimical to the interests of the majority, like automation or social media, others are clearly “abusive”. Think of surveillance. Whilst some authoritarian states now use the digital realm to mass monitor citizens, the Industrial Revolution saw the modern factory become a place of surveillance. Weavers weren’t constantly monitored as artisans working in cottages, but in factories they were always under the boss’s eye.
Other technologies “pacify” citizens – keep us docile. Acemoglu cites social media. It prevents us “becoming fully fledged democratic citizens”. Social media bombards us with so much information it becomes impossible to make informed decisions, or for journalism to keep pace with politics.
Will our brains soon be wired to a technological Matrix?
Acemoglu says HG Wells was right when he warned: “We think technology means humans dominating nature, but really it’s about humans dominating other humans”.
Tech tycoons often claim science corrects human flaws. That’s a dark dystopian worldview. It disregards “our amazing qualities: compassion, empathy, cooperation, creativity, social intelligence, emotional intelligence”: attributes no machine could ever possess.
“Of course humans have many failings,” Acemoglu says, “but I disagree with putting great emphasis on this as that’s one of the rhetorical tricks the tech industry uses, saying we’re not good, that’s why we need machines, that’s AI should make the decisions. This ‘propaganda of human imperfection’ is the handmaiden to excessive automation.” And excessive automation, without alternative job creation, means mass unemployment, social collapse and disorder.
Acemoglu challenges the accepted belief that “technology is going in one direction and humans just have to adapt. That’s wrong. Humans and technology have to meet halfway”. Apple founder, Steve Jobs, claimed everyone should learn programming. Acemoglu says “that’s nonsense”. A world of programmers is a world without art, drama, carpentry and nursing. “We’ve unique human talents. That means we need a completely different way of thinking about technology. It must be useful to humans.” That should be the only metric to measure technology: does it make humanity happier.
Instead, we’re marching towards dystopia, led by tech tycoons who “don’t just think of technology as controlling nature, but as dominance over other people”. Some like Paypal founder Peter Thiel are expressly political. He’s donated $1.25 million to Donald Trump, and attacked multiculturalism. Acemoglu says Thiel sees himself as an “Ayn Rand hero”. Rand’s novels are beloved by the hard right.
Technology gives billionaires “absolute power, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, Acemoglu warns. In the post-war era, power was checked by regulation ensuring “no business became dominant. We’d amazing growth that reduced inequality. That was an era of countervailing power. Then we dismantled it.” During the Thatcher-Reagan years, regulation was trashed along with workers’ rights and union power. “We’re left with mega-companies.” Silicon Valley now shapes the world.
Acemoglu has a manifesto for change. “The aspiration should be to redirect technology so it empowers humans as workers and citizens.” To do that, workers need a voice in the workplace so ordinary people push technology toward creating new jobs rather than simply eradicating old ones. “Technology needs shepherded,” Acemoglu says.
Perhaps our heads are stuck in the clouds when it comes to potential dystopia
A new regulatory environment needs built so “no individual or company becomes massively powerful like Google, Facebook or Microsoft”. Tech companies today have “unparalleled power” way beyond the oil giants of previous generations.
However, one huge threat to controlling technology is political short-termism. Governments think only in election cycles, not about long-term social good. Controlling tech is difficult, it means taking on powerful corporations. Most governments haven’t the time or ability to do so. That failure in itself presents a threat to democracy.
In the past, the changes needed to tame tech were won by trade unions. Yet today, unions are at their weakest ever, and unlikely to see their power return. The death of manufacturing undercut union power for good. So workers need different ways of organising. Governments – particularly in Britain and America – have hamstrung unions with anti-labour laws. That means “civil society” – academia, charities, think tanks – must play a bigger role. If change doesn’t come, then freedom is in danger as young people increasingly say democracy is failing to protect them. Taming technology could renew democracy.
Digital advertising taxes, and tighter regulation on tech companies exploiting data for profit, could start to bring social media under control. Taxing capital in the same way as labour would be a paradigm-shift. Currently, capital is much more lightly taxed that your income. That boosts the power of big tech. Society should also consider breaking up big tech to prevent monopolies, Acemoglu suggests.
AI is the frontier. Tackling the dangers it poses could start to reconfigure our relationship with technology and the imbalance of power it creates. “I’m very worried,” Acemoglu says. “We’re going towards a dystopian future. AI is repeating the mistakes of earlier eras.”
If we regulate AI, however, it could be hugely beneficial to humanity: aiding diagnoses, assisting teachers, verifying information, helping government planning. “I’m convinced we can use AI for good, but on our current path, we’re going to bad places.”
We’ve heard the prosecution case: how technology has harmed humanity throughout history. Now let’s investigate the benefits of technology, through the prism of just one small sector of human activity: aviation.
“The aviation industry is one of the last to start decarbonising,” says Christopher De Bellaigue, the historian who’s written Flying Green. It’s got “aspirations” to be net zero by 2050. But clearly, when it comes to climate change, that’s far too late. The aviation industry is also “built on volume”, he says, “it requires to keep growing”. It’s even “given itself until 2035 to carry on increasing emissions”. Without scientists working out how to ‘green’ aviation, nothing will improve. “The trajectory aviation is on is particularly damaging,” says De Bellaigue. It’s also a grossly unequal industry – just two percent of the world’s population is responsible for 823 million international flights annually.
Aviation fuel depends primarily on kerosene. If we can green aviation fuel, we can green the industry. De Bellaigue has uncovered how close science is to taking carbon out of flying. In Zurich, there’s chemists making fuel literally from thin air. In Dresden, pollutant-free electro-fuel is being perfected. In Mississippi, biofuel is being made from crops; in Georgia, low carbon ethanol is extracted for fuel from sugarcane. Hydrogen is being honed as a green energy source around the planet; EVTOLs – electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles, like those flying taxies coming to Chicago’s O’Hare airport – are already operable. In Iceland, fuel pollution is injected underground and turned to stone.
The Zurich experiments, De Bellaigue says, capture carbon from the air to create fuel. If renewable energy can be used in such processes, then we’ve carbon neutral fuel for planes. Aviation is much more difficult to green than other forms of transportation. The worst that will happen to an electric bus is that it runs out of charge and stops. Electric plane fall from the sky.
The greenest aviation fuel technology is hydrogen. Truly ‘Green hydrogen’ is extracted from water using the power of renewable energy, like wind or solar, and then turned into fuel. Currently, though, that process is complicated and costly. In 2021, only 0.04% of all hydrogen production was green. It’s easier to make hydrogen using fossil fuels or nuclear power – which still damages the environment. Even if we perfect cheap, easily produced green hydrogen we must work out how to put it efficiently into planes by turning it from gas to liquid. Hydrogen is “voluminous,” says De Bellaigue, and would require redesigning airplanes for long distance, large carrier, flights.
Suggested redesigns include bat-shaped planes, built to accommodate larger fuel storage. At present, it looks like we could use green hydrogen in planes of roughly 90-seat capacity without redesign in about five years for relatively short flights.
Techniques like getting hydrogen from nuclear power may provide a bridge while greener energy sources are perfected. There’s no commercially available hydrogen-powered flights today, though test flights are underway, including in Scotland.
BEIJING, CHINA – AUGUST 18: A boy points to the AI robot Poster during the 2022 World Robot Conference at Beijing Etrong International Exhibition on August 18, 2022 in Beijing, China. The 2022 World Robot Conference kicked off on Thursday in Beijing.
Another big problem with hydrogen is public perception. “People still remember the Hindenburg,” De Bellaigue says. The spectre of the German airship bursting into flames in 1937 hasn’t left humanity’s collective consciousness.
Biofuels offer another route to green aviation. Currently, a lot of corn-based ethanol is used to fuel American cars. Biofuels also top up aviation fuel. But the problem is that to create biofuels, we depend on agriculture. That means carbon emissions. Carbon is also released in the conversion process, turning crops into fuel. Waste can also be turned into biofuel, but again, conversion sees carbon released. It’s greener than kerosene but far from fully green. There’s clearly a limit to the amount of crops we can use to make biofuels without affecting food supply. “You can’t take all the wheat that’s going into biscuits and put it in airplanes.”
Westerners reducing their number of flights isn’t sufficient to tackle aviation’s emissions. Developing nations – the global south – want to fly more in order to boost their economies. Their approach to decarbonisation is much slower. De Bellaigue references one African airline which made clear to western environmentalists that “you can’t tell us not to fly. You’ve been flying for years, now it’s our turn.” Attempts at off-setting emissions by paying a few pounds extra for airlines to plant trees are “just bollocks”, De Bellaigue says. “Guilt-free travel is an illusion”.
The aviation industry is “cosseted by governments”. There’s no tax on aviation fuel, unlike petrol for cars. So change in the aviation industry depends solely on technological progress and the creation of green flight. The alternative is that flying becomes so expensive only the rich use planes.
De Bellaigue suggests punitive measures against private jets – forcing them to use the most sustainable fuel available regardless of price. “An hour in a private jet produces more carbon than the average person does in half a year. That’s not social justice. Someone who flies once a year for their hard-earned holiday is in no way as responsible as someone who flies twice a week.” There’s an insanity in the market as well with frequent fliers rewarded with cheaper flights, creating a death-loop of emissions.
Currently, there’s a scramble for who will be the winner in the race towards green aviation fuel. America and Europe are investing big. The Biden administration has created tax incentives. Mandates are being issued, including in Britain, that a proportion of air fuel must be sustainable. Huge amounts of private investment is going into hydrogen.
Electric planes, using zero emission energy, are the holy grail – but at the moment technologically out of reach for flights of any duration. The key is improving battery capacity so electric flights can cross continents.
Today, five people could fly about 25 miles on a battery charge. However, capacity improves annually. By 2050, we should be able to fly 90 people from Edinburgh to Barcelona via electric. But again, the key is ensuring the electricity comes from renewable energy, not fossil fuels.
A good example of how it’s power rather than technology that damages humanity is found in the aviation industry. De Bellaigue notes KLM recently ran ads asking people to ‘fly responsibly’, while “fighting tooth and nail against French government proposals that would make them pay one euro fifty in environmental tax. It was classic virtue signalling. We need to change the model”.
Tony Blair refused to countenance aviation taxes as it would lose votes. The way big business operates means it’s cheaper to fly from Glasgow to London than take the train.
If we addressed who has power when it comes to technology, we could ameliorate its bad effects. Would aviation be so detrimental if politicians and big business had their feet held properly to the fire?
As technology is on trial, you be the judge.
Artificial intelligence poses the greatest danger to education and the Government is responding too slowly to the threat, head teachers have claimed. Leaders from the country’s top schools have formed a coalition, led by Sir Anthony, to warn of the “very real and present hazards and dangers” being presented by the technology. The head teachers of dozens of private and state schools support the initiative, including Helen Pike, the master of Magdalen College School in Oxford, and Alex Russell, the chief executive of Bourne Education Trust, which runs nearly 30 state schools.
Key Insights The projected fair value for ZoomInfo Technologies is US$34.63 based on 2 Stage Free Cash Flow to Equity…
Speaking at the G7 summit in Japan, Rishi Sunak has warned that China poses the "biggest challenge to global security and prosperity", describing the country as "increasingly authoritarian at home and assertive abroad".
Using the pungent scent of lion or tiger dung to ward off nuisance foxes from urban gardens is a trick many have sworn by for decades.
Off-duty officers helped arrest a man after a 17-year-old suffered injuries in an assault.
They're reported in large numbers all across Cornwall – in some places in their "zillions."
The remaining four are empty as the keeper, Dale Gibson of Bermondsey Street Bees, realised such numbers of honeybees were doing more harm than good. "London is Europe's most densely populated city for honeybees, possibly the world," he said. The honeybee is in great fettle.
The latest public notices published in the Wiltshire Times and Wiltshire Gazette and Herald…
Residents feel trapped and choked by dust, while experts warn environmental damage is ‘solving one problem by creating others’
With cost of cleanup to be passed on to bill payers, analysis shows they will also pay £624 more by 2030 to fund investor payouts
Homeowners are being urged to keep an eye on their neighbours' gardens this summer for signs of bamboo.
Pictures show a lobster living in a traffic cone and sea anemones growing on a can of Irn Bru.
Mercury expected to climb to 20C on Saturday afternoon
Two Sumatran tiger cubs were born at the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee on May 5, zoo officials said.The zoo announced the birth of the cubs on Friday, May 19, and shared adorable pictures of the tiny tigers on Facebook.The zoo also announced on Friday that a 24-hour livestream of the cubs’ enclosure would be available so that people can “watch as they grow and learn how to be tigers.”This footage was livestreamed by the zoo, and shows the moment one of the cubs attempts to walk, only to quickly tumble over.“We are thrilled to announce the birth of these two Sumatran tiger cubs – a critically endangered species. The symbol of the tiger is synonymous with pride and community here in Memphis, and I have no doubt the city will join us in the celebration of these significant births,” the zoo’s chief zoological officer Courtney Janney said. Credit: Memphis Zoo via Storyful
Anglers are being warned to keep their eyes out for invasive foreign fish.
As part of the Government’s ambitious transition to net zero by 2050, all homes need to get to an EPC (energy performance certificate) rating of “C” by 2035.
The Government has launched a review of heat pumps over fears they might be too noisy, it has emerged.
Andy and Lynette Smith spent 10 months seeking compensation after animals’ escape from nearby farm
The creatures were nearly wiped out from Southern Australia over the past 150 years due to habitat loss and the introduction of predators like European foxes.
A LARGE fire at a recycling waste facility ripped through 50 tonnes of waste in east Dorset.


Leave a Comment