Dictionary definitions of “tool” generally refer to some device used by humans to serve a purpose but recent investigations have shown that many creatures other than humans have found it useful to extend their physical abilities with various available implements. Nevertheless, humans excel above all other creatures in developing new ways to fabricate sophisticated objects to manipulate, not only their environment, but each other to create and control the complex of human society.
Viewed as a greater generality than a specific object, a tool can also be a concept or an idea or some generally accepted social mechanism which is used to dominate human relationships. This extends the basic concept of the tool to a social continuum far greater than a mere object and becomes an object lesson in how the tool itself can overpower its creator and endanger the entire nature of society to the detriment of all life. The recent US presidential election clearly indicates how a social tool, the Electoral College, dominated its master, the democratic popular vote, to create a rather odd and quite frightening situation. The alternative candidate who exhibited an equal relish for demolishing planetary life with the exorbitant feral delight in extending the US dominance in a nuclear conflict with Russia did not seem much of an encouraging alternative. But more general human social tools such as money, the military-industrial complex, private property, and many more complex social relationships currently are in operation in ways not particularly favorable to this most peculiar species, the entirety of humanity or, to be more general, all other life on the planet.
To step somewhat aside from a strictly human viewpoint one can perhaps see the tool itself as a kind of independent creature utilizing the ingenuity of living creatures to evolutionize into an independent dynamic factor. This is not an original novel concept. It was explored in the novel “Looking Backward” published in 1888 by Edward Bellamy but it seems especially pertinent in looking over current advances.
There are several contemporary areas where this peculiar activity is becoming a dynamic invasive of and dangerous to human existence. They become strangely independent ideational ecologies with a life of their own, a jungle full of vicious conceptual monsters with frightful destructive capacities. The internet itself, considered originally as a gateway to the freedoms of availability of all sorts of wonderful human interactions has provided an incredibly rich field to distorted minds who make off regularly with huge robberies of funds never before possible and with wild distortions of information that result in frightful international and local catastrophes. One might take the opposite view that these were merely aware individuals open to new opportunities but these individuals can also be perceived oppositely as a constant field of human negative qualities available to the internet as an entity for opportunistic activity.
To move down to a more specific area, Hawking’s cautions on the advances in artificial intelligence very definitely illustrate where most peculiar tool evolution can demonstrate massive negative possibilities. I remember clearly back in 1939 when I was thirteen years old seeing, in the Westinghouse Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair a massive android toy offered as a robot whose marvelous accomplishment was to click the fingers of one raised hand and vocally count to five and smoke a cigarette. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuyTRbj8QSA). Lately the field is advancing into military areas where, inspite of Isaac Asimov’s cautionary laws, technology is on the point of granting robots the right to decide whether or not to kill people. The visions of robots going wild as depicted in the Terminator film series has not at all deterred military technology where their toys have become somewhat more sophisticated than counting to five and smoking cigarettes. Obama’s weekly deployment of drones to wipe away suspected terrorist threats and incidentally blasting wedding and funeral parties look to make large advances in robot innovation, especially since the most recent reports that human control pilots of these remote aircraft seem to be becoming reluctant to act as conscious agents of random remote obliteration.
I have read that, especially in Japan, the aging population requires care that is beginning to be beyond the capabilities of the human social services and, as robotry produces more acceptable and economically viable units to penetrate social organizations, these artificial creatures will become common throughout society. China which has become the production center for much of the world is moving towards massive numbers of robots to replace workers (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601215/china-is-building-a-robot-army-of-model-workers/) and this move towards non-human production is creating huge problems within the foundational economic system where workers are rewarded for their labor with the means to obtain the results of production. The very odd social and financial pressures to replace humans with machines that have no motivation to require the end products of the factory totally destroys a vital fundamental of society and there seems to be almost no consideration of this social destruction. It is, of course, a very long step from this situation to imply that the tools themselves, the robots, have some sort of conscious motivation to destroy society. But when one includes the organizations of human management into the mix the factor of motivation becomes intrinsic to the problem. In a weird way the robots have incorporated a powerful sector of active humanity into their evolutionary development and penetration into human society.
And beyond this, as with the internet and including the current potentials of the internet to pervert and corrupt social relationships, the extensive incorporation of robots in both production centers and the most intimate and personal areas of everyday life leaves civilization in its entirety at the mercy of the unavoidable massive errors in a technological civilization. Most recently, the internet of things including many facilities for transportation and maintenance of individual households are falling into automatic controls and the bedlams possible out of the types of interference by perverse and criminal opportunists can become equivalent to the worst scenarios of terrorist attacks. Even back in the old days of the 1950’s there were imaginative humorous stories in magazines of intelligent vacuum cleaners and lighting systems developing peculiar emotional desires to the consternation of people and now as the eagerness to automate everything proceeds strange things can happen.
Hawking was concerned with the AI potentials of super intellect wherein organic human intelligence has neither the speed of reaction nor the massive recourse to bulk information that even the machines of today exhibit. As with the film “AI” (which was a technological update of the old tale Pinocchio) the ideal was sort of a human centered desire of artificial intellect to attain human acceptance of this artificial life but, no doubt, Hawking was fully aware of many of the limits of humans to penetrate and assimilate the very odd structures of the natural world. Evolution fashions each life form to exist and multiply within its specific ecology and humans have remarkably extended this very limited base of natural perceptions and their implications. But an intellect constructed with none of the limitations of organic survival and devoted to its extension and control through many factors that have never even been apprehended within human exploration is a tool which is far outside of human control or perhaps understanding. Its “conquest” of humanity probably would be as little concern to it as a human desire to dominate a dandelion. I really have no idea as to what its motivations might be but if it came to the point of conflict with humanity the elimination our species its consideration would probably come to the same level as plucking a flower.
At end I can only conclude we become the tools of our tools.