In another recent piece, I expressed that I think California law enforcement (and probably most other places) don’t take the misuse of Tesla’s autopilot very seriously. Driving a car around using in-development software, and then climbing into the back, is as dangerous as shooting a gun off randomly in a crowded city. You might not hurt or kill someone the first time you do it, or even the tenth, but it’s only a matter of time until people get hurt, so it’s something we can’t just let people do.
Another thing I noticed is that younger people (the guy abusing Autopilot in San Francisco is 25) seem to be a lot more comfortable with autonomous vehicles than older 30-something curmudgeons like me. My son thought a Tesla Model Y was “self drive,” and I see a lot more young people who have complete faith even in under-development technologies to the point where they’d stake their lives on it.
So I started wondering why there seems to be a generational difference here. I’m very skeptical of AI, and think we need to be very careful with it. Elon Musk, who is a little more than 10 years older than me, says AI is a nuclear-level threat, while people younger than me seem a lot more cozy with it.
And then I started thinking about movies.
The Movies These Kids Grew Up With
Unlike my kids, or even my youngest brother, I remember the 80s and 90s. A 25-year-old’s earliest memories are probably sometime after the Y2K bug failed to destroy civilization. They grew up in a completely different world than I did.
What did they watch as kids? Movies like Harry Potter, the pre-MCU Spider Man films, Pixar movies, and The Lord of The Rings series were what they grew up on. As I combed through Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the top 140 movies of the 2000s, I saw plenty of dystopian films, but none where artificial intelligence was a serious problem or the main bad guy.
When AI did feature in a film, it was often a mixed bag or even good. The robot kid in AI was an innocent creature abused by the world. Bicentennial Man was trying to be more human. In I, Robot, there’s an evil AI entity but another AI beats her and saves humanity. The big exception is The Matrix sequels, but that one started in the 90s, and subsequent films had more good guys who weren’t human.
On top of that, the Post-9/11 culture of fear led many to want to trust authority more, because they wanted to feel safe. Movies where the government was the enemy of the people were in decline for years, with even The Bourne Identity re-shot and re-edited to make the CIA look less evil. Most of the baddies in the top films of the 2000s seem to be magical in origin, or serial killers. People had had enough of doomsday after 9/11, and didn’t want to see it in movies as much.
The Films I Grew Up With
My generation faced a completely different set of movies that showed us how the world of AI might work.
I know many parents wouldn’t let their kids watch movies like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but many others were cool with it. For those of us who watched it as kids, we saw post apocalyptic imagery of burnt playground equipment, human skulls, and killer robots fighting The Resistance led by John Connor. How did we get there? By putting an AI system in charge of something important.
Even for silly movies, the message was clear. Putting “munitions chips in toys” somehow imbued children’s toys with consciousness in Small Soldiers, and because munitions chips are used by the military, the result was militaristic toys that could destroy whole neighborhoods.
The movies even got into self-driving cars. Johnny Cab from Total Recall showed us that the technology is probably safe (even if it’s totally annoying), but could let you down in unusual and dangerous situations. Being able to get access to manual controls is a good idea, but even then expect problems and a clueless computer.
Star Trek even got into this. At first, the Borg could have been a cautionary tale about the dangers of brain-computer interfaces, as people and aliens captured by them are stripped of all individuality and absorbed into a hive-mind. We later learn, though, that the collective is controlled by an artificial intelligence who identifies as the collective’s queen.
[Side note: The same guy who played Johnny Cab (Robert Picardo) also played the Emergency Medical Hologram, and AI entity who did a lot of good in at least one series and one movie.]
The 90s ended with The Matrix. Not only was there a future war with artificial intelligence, but they basically won the war, enslaving humanity in a fake virtual reality and using them for batteries. People were happy when AI got invented, but it proved to be a disaster for human freedom.
I could go on and on, but there are more examples in another article I wrote. An evil robot police car from a 1951 short story, K.A.R.R. from Knight Rider, and even Horace the Hate Bug (Herbie’s enemy) are all great examples of what the popular culture was for people my age and older.
Older Generations’ Experience With Technology Is Totally Different
I’m not saying to be a Luddite, but AI is one of the most powerful technologies there is. The movies I grew up with probably weren’t very informative, but they did leave many of us with a healthy respect for not just the good that could come from AI, but the potential issues that could come up. Plenty of people my age and older have an appreciation for things like Tesla’s Autopilot, but we also have some healthy skepticism.
People my age and older didn’t have a computer to play with as a kid with thousands or millions of colors on the display (I remember monochrome displays), a consistent internet connection, or even a mouse.
Take the following for example:
Run, DOS, run!
Yeah, some of us get that joke because we used DOS and know what a Dick and Jane book is (hint: it’s not an erotic comic). That’s how much the world has changed over just a couple of decades.
Technology didn’t used to be so capable. It could only do simple things, and it would frequently mess up. Even one’s mom picking up a phone across the house (you know, the old wired ones) would boot us off the internet.
Reaching Younger People
The real trick here will be to teach people who grew up with Web 2.0, social media, and smartphones to have some healthy skepticism while not being ridiculous about it. Showing them how badly new technologies can fail is probably the way to do that.
We can easily warn people about the dangers of misusing the technology without bashing the technology itself. When used responsibly, it’s a great feature, but when used irresponsibly, the results can be deadly.
It’s not a problem that’s limited to Tesla by any stretch. Every manufacturer’s ability to avoid running people down can be quite limited:
Just showing them how the technology can fail is probably the best way to get them to be responsible users.
Featured image: a screenshot of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. (Fair use, commentary)