Godfather of VR, Jaron Lanier: ‘The danger isn’t that AI destroys us. It’s that it drives us insane’


Jaron Lanier, known as the godfather of virtual reality and a pioneer in the web industry, has earned the nickname “Dismal Optimist” due to his distinctive perspective on technology. At a time when many express fears about the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) and the rise of robots, Lanier stands out as a voice of reason, countering the doomsayers with his brand of optimistic caution.

Lanier’s views on AI are unconventional, as he dislikes the term “artificial intelligence,” arguing that it is not genuinely intelligent and that we should not view it as a rival to humans. He likens comparing humans to AI to comparing a car’s speed with that of a human runner, emphasizing that AI is essentially a product of human abilities. While this perspective provides reassurance, Lanier also warns against complacency, cautioning that the misuse and abuse of AI could lead to catastrophic consequences, even human extinction.

Throughout his illustrious career, Lanier has straddled the roles of an insider and an outsider in the tech world. Having worked alongside renowned figures in the web industry, he has consistently highlighted the risks posed by technology. Despite being a tech guru, his primary focus remains on championing the importance of humanity over digital advancements. In his acclaimed books, such as “You Are Not a Gadget” and “Ten Reasons For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts,” Lanier passionately argues that the internet has eroded personal interaction, stifled creativity, and corrupted politics.

In a virtual conference with Lanier, some technical glitches occur, offering him the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how technology can falter. Notably, Lanier is also an accomplished contemporary classical musician, and he draws intriguing parallels between the simplicity of digital technology and the complexity of musical instruments, using music as an analogy to illustrate the limitations of technology.

Delving into Lanier’s life story reveals a remarkable tale of triumph over adversity. Born to Jewish parents who endured the atrocities of the past, Lanier’s early life was marked by hardship. Nevertheless, his upbringing and exceptional intellect led him to explore computer programming and, later, to delve into the fascinating world of virtual reality. Despite experiencing personal setbacks, he persevered in pursuing his passion for technology and co-founded VPL Research, a company that aimed to commercialize VR technologies. Although he could have easily become a tech billionaire by strategically selling his businesses or showing more interest in monetary gains, Lanier’s values and principles led him on a different path.

Looking at the current state of the internet, Lanier critiques how capitalism has exploited our desire for free content and interaction. As a consequence, we have become commodities, with our data sold to third parties for marketing purposes. Lanier’s prophetic insights regarding the potential manipulation of bots have indeed materialized, as AI algorithms restrict choices, confining us within echo chambers. Despite these concerns, he sees hope in new chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, which possess the potential to offer more diverse and randomized answers, thereby restoring choice and humanity to digital interactions.

Amid the discussion of AI, a crucial point arises regarding its potential to replace human jobs, with chatbots even capable of writing articles similar to this one. Lanier contends that it is not the technology itself that replaces us but rather how we choose to use it. He presents two scenarios: one in which bots are treated as real entities, leading to the erasure of their source texts, and the other in which sources are tracked, creating a world where content creators are compensated, and a sense of responsibility and accountability prevail. In this context, Lanier introduces the concept of “data dignity,” which advocates for the acknowledgment and fair treatment of data sources.

The conversation naturally shifts to the challenges posed by social media platforms, particularly Twitter, which Lanier criticizes for exacerbating negative aspects of human behavior. He argues that Twitter’s design fosters a convergence of individual personalities into a homogenized version, optimized for Twitter engagement. This manufactured personality thrives on insecurity, obsession with personal slights, and resistance to acknowledging the rights of others, especially those with differing viewpoints. Lanier eloquently characterizes this phenomenon, drawing a parallel between influential figures like Donald Trump, Kanye West, and Elon Musk, whose distinct personalities have seemingly converged on Twitter. It is a compelling analysis that ties back to Lanier’s central theme of the responsibility to sanity, urging us to use social media mindfully.

Throughout the interview, Lanier emphasizes the importance of embracing our humanness and recognizing the uniqueness of human consciousness. He staunchly disagrees with the view held by some modern enlightenment thinkers and tech enthusiasts that denies the distinctiveness of human consciousness, equating it to a computer’s functioning. For Lanier, consciousness is a genuine and mystical aspect of human existence, which differentiates us from other entities. He passionately argues that embracing the significance of human consciousness is crucial for constructing a society and developing technologies that genuinely serve humanity.

As our virtual encounter draws to a close, Lanier glances at his watch and apologizes, revealing that he needs to attend a dentist’s appointment. The reality of the tangible world intrudes, asserting its supremacy over the virtual realm. Artificial intelligence may hold great promise, but it cannot mend his teeth, highlighting the importance of striking a balance between the virtual and the real. Lanier cherishes this dichotomy, acknowledging the value of both worlds.

Jaron Lanier, the Dismal Optimist, presents a fresh and thought-provoking perspective on technology, AI, and the role of humanity in shaping the digital landscape. By challenging conventional notions and highlighting the significance of data dignity, choice, and responsibility, Lanier inspires us to approach the future of AI with greater consideration. He urges us to use technology in a manner that enhances human lives without compromising our innate humanity. Through visionary insights, Lanier provides a roadmap for a more compassionate and balanced future, where technology and humanism can harmoniously coexist. His ideas call for collective responsibility in shaping a technological landscape that serves the best interests of humanity and safeguards against potential dangers. As we ponder Lanier’s insights, we recognize the transformative power of technology and the critical need for humanity to guide its evolution toward a more enlightened and equitable future.

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