In the age of AI, George Orwell matters more than ever.
Published by Brainstorm Magazine
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Thus begins what is considered by many the most significant novel of the previous century. Eric Arthur Blair was a book reviewer and correspondent for the Observer newspaper in London. He was a shy and introverted man, and although his book Animal Farm made him famous and financially independent, he loathed the recognition that came with it.
The world knows him by his pen name, George Orwell. Fatigued by the literary world of London – ‘smothered under journalism’, as he called it – Orwell and his son moved to the remote outpost of Barnhill on the Scottish island Jura.
He was on a mission, and he knew he was dying. Having seen the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, and foreseeing the terror of the Soviet era, Orwell began writing his most important book: Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was a dystopian world – Orwellian was the word birthed into our collected consciousness – where humans were forced to be robot-like in their obedience and allegiance to the state and the ruling class.
Although his work was met with hatred in many quarters, Orwell was perhaps the only writer of his time who was accurate in his predictions about imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. He famously gave us terms like Big Brother, the Thought Police, Newspeak and Doublethink.
Unlike his contemporaries, he is still distinctly relevant in our day and age. The more I read George Orwell, the more I am convinced that he saw a future no one could imagine.
The age of AI has resulted in the most powerful technologies ever created. These technologies may create a utopian world only imagined previously, where most humans are healthier and more prosperous than ever before, and where we live longer than ever thought possible.
But technological innovation has always been a double-edged sword. We may also – and most likely will – use these technologies for population control, the end of privacy and in the servitude of the political and military elite.
We already live in a world where Big Brother watches our every move. Our smartphone is our constant companion, always listening, tracking our whereabouts, and with whom we associate. Orwell wrote about the telescreen that constantly watched the people who watched it. Many of our smart devices are monitoring, tracking and seeing everything we do.
The Chinese Communist Party introduced a social credit system that ranks citizens and punishes them for what is deemed ‘wrongful’ behaviour. Brain-computer interface technology, like that of Elon Musk’s Neuralink, is ready for implanting monitoring smart devices into our brains. What if our thoughts could be read, or worse, influenced by iniquitous business or government agencies?
AI may just empower the Thought Police to monitor our deepest and most private humanness, rewarding or punishing us accordingly. I fear that our children will live in a dystopian world, empowered by AI, where technological totalitarianism will always watch them, track them and monitor their thoughts.
The relevance of Orwell does not belong to the past. His work is a clarion call to us in our age. As much as I want to remain optimistic about the potential of AI, I grow fearful that we are innocently opening a Pandora’s box that will unleash the final age of human freedom.
When he died of tuberculosis at age 46, his obituary in The Times read: “In Orwell's vision of a not too remote future…in a wholly totalitarian world, men had been conditioned to deny the possibility of human freedom and to will their subservience to an omnipotent ruling hierarchy.”