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Fifty years ago last Sunday, a computer engineer named Douglas Engelbart gave a live demonstration in San Francisco that changed the computer industry and, indirectly, the world. In the auditorium, several hundred entranced geeks watched as he used something called a “mouse” and a special keypad to manipulate structured documents and showed how people in different physical locations could work collaboratively on shared files, online.

It was, said Steven Levy, a tech historian who was present, “the mother of all demos”. “As windows open and shut and their contents reshuffled,” he wrote, “the audience stared into the maw of cyberspace. Engelbart, with a no-hands mic, talked them through, a calm voice from Mission Control as the truly final frontier whizzed before their eyes.” That 1968 demo inspired a huge new industry based on networked personal computers using graphical interfaces, in other words, the stuff we use today.

Engelbart was a visionary who believed that the most effective way to solve problems was to augment human abilities and develop ways of building collective intelligence. Computers, in his view, were “power steering for the mind” – tools for augmenting human capabilities – and this idea of augmentation has been the backbone of the optimistic narrative of the tech industry ever since.

The dream has become a bit tarnished in the last few years, as we’ve learned how data vampires use the technology to exploit us at the same time as they provide free tools for our supposed “augmentation”. The argument in favour varies from company to company and from application to application. Spreadsheets, word-processing, computer-assisted design (CAD) and project-planning tools are unquestionably a boon, for example. Google search can be seen as a memory prosthesis for humanity or an excuse for never retaining any factual knowledge. But it’s not clear what kind of cognitive augmentation – if any – is provided by Instagram or Facebook. And as for Twitter...

There is, however, one kind of recent tech development for which the augmentation argument is continually made: artificial intelligence. AI is unfailingly portrayed by its evangelists as a technology that really can amplify human capabilities. In its current manifestation, it’s basically machine-learning and its augmentation potential is often impressive. One thinks, for example, of how image-scanning software can rapidly scan tens of thousands of retinal scans and reliably pick out those that need consideration by an eye surgeon.

But there are also lots of cases where machine-learning produces perverse outcomes and biased predictions and there’s widespread concern about building a networked world around such a powerful but flawed technology. To try and get a balanced assessment of the risk, the Pew Research Center recently put the following question to a formidable panel of experts: “By 2030, do you think it is most likely that advancing AI and related technology systems will enhance human capacities and empower them?”

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