There’s something about fire. Crackling, feeding, inviting, meditative, consuming, unpredictable, destructive. We need it, we love it -- but it can harm.
I recently wondered whether accelerating innovations in artificial intelligence could be as game-changing as the discovery of fire by Homo erectus. There is no question that fire catalyzed the development of early humans. But there were massive risks too; and many likely burned, maimed, harmed or otherwise killed resources, friends, families, enemies – or themselves – in the process of figuring it out. But ultimately – fire allowed great leaps forward.
Yet one of the overarching storylines we hear in the media around artificial intelligence is: “What happens if it gets out of control and kills us all?” Elon Musk talks of “summoning the demon” of artificial intelligence, “our biggest existential threat.” Extraordinary theoretical thinkers like Stephen Hawking warn that automation and artificial intelligence could potentially be “the worst mistake in history.”
One can imagine (literally) less-brainy folk than Hawking and Musk 125,000 years ago wringing their hands over the innovative members of the tribe, the pyromaniacs among them: “Don’t touch that! It’ll kill us all! It’s already burned half of the savannah and all the animals in it! It came from a thunderbolt IN THE SKY!”
Fast-forward to modern times and consider little and big examples of “fire gone out of control moments”:
- THE ACCIDENTAL: A kid playing with matches
- THE DELIBERATE: Wild-eyed, crazy arsonist
- THE METEOROLOGICAL: Thor and his thunderbolts, touching off wildfires
- THE SEISMIC: San Francisco 1906, burning to the ground
- THE BELLICOSE: Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima, the World Trade Center...
But the march of human progress always entails some risk. Without it, we don’t evolve. And how do you “de-risk” AI? Well, how did we – humans – de-risk fire?
There’s an obvious answer staring us right in the face, in every community, whether it’s big, small, or in-between, that helps us all “not wring our hands” over fire and sleep safely at night.
Your local fire department.
Yes, that good, old-fashioned-with-new-equipment bastion of bell-ringing, helmet wearing, siren-blasting, axe-wielding, oxygen-mask wearing, pole-sliding heroes that you probably don’t think too much about in the day-to-day, but that gets the biggest cheer from the community at the Fourth of July Parade.
Think about it: most of the time, today’s firefighters stand guard, at the ready, but the actual time they spend battling blazes is rather small. Yet there they are, and society sleeps soundly knowing they are there, waiting for the alarm. One need only look at your tax bill to understand – even decades of predictive, preventative measures like sprinkler systems, smoke detectors, GFCI breakers, and the unfortunate tightening noose of fireplace no-burn days – it’s the price we all pay to ensure they’re “on the wall” when all other safety measures fail.
A New Role: Digital First-Responders in the Future of Work
The advent of modern firefighting may be instructive to today’s digital shiftpoint. It was when humanity started to get really “civilized”, industrial and mechanized that the fire department as we know it became a key fixture in every town, village, city, and state. While there were some rudimentary efforts in ancient Rome, It started in France in the early 18th century, and was catalyzed later by Napoleon, who originated "professional" firefighters, known as Sapeurs-Pompiers culled from the French Army. Across the channel, London suffered great fires in 798, 982, 989, 1212 and above all the Great Fire of London in 1666 – which finally, ahem “lit a fire under” the City Council to craft the first fire insurance company.
So that’s why I’m calling for the creation of a new profession in the Future of Work: FAIrefighters. Or, perhaps to coin a less-clunky term, let’s call them “Bot Busters”. Who you gonna call...?
I Ain’t Afraid of No `Bot
Imagine this: FAIrefighters (or Bot Busters) could be something like your friendly neighborhood fire department; brigades of technological specialist teams -- first responders, if you will – ready at a moment’s notice to sweep down virtual Internet poles, erect network ladders, and hack through roofs in the Cloud and douse scary situations where misbehaving AI starts to veer into the direction of unintended consequences.
Our modern fire brigades (and how to pay for them) offer a template: FAIrefighters/Bot Busters could be organized by successively higher orders of classification within the community, local or state/national governments to deal with the physical, as well as virtual, perils of misbehaving AI, and could be something all of society pays for (just like today for firefighters, you’ll find them as a line-item on your property-tax bill).
FAIrefighters could run the gamut from everyday generalists to crack teams of highly compensated, highly trained, highly skilled set of “first responders” should trouble strike. From a small flare-up in the connected home (connected fridge over-spilling with too much milk?), or a glitch in a self-driving car, the FAIrefighters are there. A rogue platoon of micro-bots that’s taking care of nuisance rodents (without pesticides) suddenly going amok and massing around the baby’s crib? Call the FAIrefighters with neutralizing code, algorithms and magnetized traps to rein in the mayhem. They know how to handle it. To quote Bill Murray’s Ghostbusters character Dr. Peter Venkman: “We came, we saw, we kicked its [rump]...”
That’s the “easy” stuff.
Just like for real five-alarm emergencies, you could imagine small strike teams might have to burgeon to coordinate hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other forces – technological or physical – much like fighting a massive “real” fire takes today. You see them every time a major wildfire in California blows up: tanker planes, bombers, elite paratroops (smoke jumpers), armies of back-country ground troops (often convict teams from prisons, and the real unsung heroes that scale forces to keep things under control) to get the upper hand.
A future grid meltdown in 30 years causes Friday afternoon LA driverless cars to logjam into levels of crazy not seen since 2016? Imagine that a five-alarm LAF(AI)D city-wide response is there for remediation, rescue and back-up restoration.
Lessons Learned from Our Bravest
Let’s put even our most fantastical worries about AI in some perspective. A good friend of mine is a Battalion Chief for the Oakland Fire Department. I heard him give a talk about the catastrophic 2013 Rim Fire near Yosemite, the largest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which burned from August to October, and cost $127 million to put out.
At one point the heat was so intense, it blew up a massive pyro-cumulus cloud into the stratosphere. The moisture in the cloud at that altitude resulted in a crystalline ice-cap that could no longer hold its weight, which came plummeting back to earth, creating a hurricane force wind, effectively turning the Tuolumne River canyon into a blast furnace the size of a small mountain range. And honestly, looking at this photo, the scale of destruction is almost as if several hydrogen bombs (minus the fallout) detonated over the top of the forest. Honestly, does the spectre of AI-gone-wild even compare?
My friend was also a veteran of the catastrophic 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which killed 25 and burned nearly 3,000 homes. And his lesson learned is that sometimes they can’t stop it, but they are THERE to control the damage. In the case of Oakland (like San Francisco in 1906 and London in 1666), they rebuilt. In the case of Yosemite, it will be a couple hundred years (my great-great-great-great grandchildren) to see that forest as I had prior to 2013.
In an era where AI – like fire – has all the potential to make society better in all the right ways (healthier, smarter, more connected, empathic, etc.), it just makes plain sense to look at this through a Future of Work lens; that any problems are confronted just as we’ve always done -- as a civic endeavor. The first fire departments happened because of modernization of things like insurance, coupled with advances in military organization. Yes they were crude, and probably very ineffectual against the biggest of disasters (much like the combined might of all of Cal Fire was against the Rim Fire). But that doesn’t make the preparedness, readiness, and heroism inherent in the profession any less admirable (think of the pictures of firefighters going up the World Trade Center stairs in 2001, or those heading into the Fukushima Daiichi reactor core). Even though the circumstances were horrible, that’s something everyone in society can agree on as “a good thing”.
Just like the fire brigades of old, we can expect tomorrow’s FAIrefighters (yes, let’s call them that – less goofy than Bot Busters) to grow in number, to get better, and feature full-time, volunteer, part time, small scale, large scale, and situational professionals ready at a moment’s notice to “respond to the call”. Come 2100, we may deservedly call our FAIrefighters a pillar of our community – they’re always there for us, bot battlin’, code hacking, AI stiflin’ corps that we’ll be proud to call our finest.