Jul 9, 2017 - Energy & Environment

Could robots make us even more polarized?

Sam Jayne / Axios

Over the last decade or so, we've seen ordinarily apolitical topics polarize us into angry opposing mobs, among them vaccines, atmospheric gases, electric cars and Russia. When there has been a super-strong view one way or another, it's been sucked into the hothouse and associated with an ideology. Charges of fake news and a general deterioration of debate have followed.

Checking my emails over the last couple of weeks, I've noticed politics seeping into the subject of the future of work. One technically expert reader, for instance, explained why he sides with the singularity, the theory predicting super-human intelligence, and the Universal Basic Income, the call for a basic stipend for all Americans as an antidote to robotization. Then he wrote: "Trump will do eight years. The Democratic Party is totally obsolete. Something will replace it." A non-sequitur? An identification of issue with party?

Or perhaps we are headed for political cleavage over robots and artificial intelligence.

  • It sounds foolish. But so does fighting over electric cars. Dan Kahan, a professor at Yale University, has studied the question as part of his Cultural Cognition Project. He told me that he found slightly higher concern over the risks of AI the more conservative you are (here's his chart). Generally speaking, however, he thinks AI is a "wild card" and not something to worry about at the moment.
  • But Georgetown's Hans Noel notes: "It's quite likely that any issue could become polarized. ... I think new issues usually get drawn into partisan or ideological debates, or else they remain unexciting to everyone."

And that's the point: Seemingly innocuous if momentous topics suddenly take on wholly unrelated emotional baggage, and before you know it, everyone has lost their brains. Both professors think it's hard to predict — should politics fly in — who would take what side in polarized AI. "Any new policy might have winners and losers on both sides of the political divide," Noel told me.

Bottom line: We can hope we are overlooked by this dimension of our age. But that doesn't mean we will be.

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