A Thought about Taking the AI Plunge

Emergency Management Once Removed

October 23, 2023

By Jim Mullen

“Dave, Dave, what are you doing, Dave… ”Daisy, Daisy Give….

The rising angst over the apparent advance in artificial intelligence, or AI, called to mind the limerick (“Daisy…” etc.) that HAL, the state-of-the-art computer in the film “2001, A Space Odyssey”  was reduced to repeating when HAL’S human soul mate  (Dave) attempted to unplug him/it (?). HAL survived, but it did not go well for “Dave”.

Some thought that movie boring, yet at the end some terrifying, unanswered questions remained. And those questions remain relevant,  in a world where social media platforms, despite tangible benefits, also serve as platforms for destructive misinformation and disinformation and manipulation of political and social opinion.

Social media has become a potent force, often determinative of how people understand issues and events. We must be careful not to choke on the swill that some platforms generate, where malign actors deliberately mislead and inflame our population.  We need to be circumspect about what personal information we “entrust” to the internet. We need to exercise due diligence in our search for truth.

As  state EM director from 2004 -2013, my personal, technophobic aversion to Twitter and other platforms was overcome by my concern that a relatively unregulated (even then) platform could convey terribly inaccurate and damaging information in a crisis – so I justified monitoring Twitter, et. al. from the state EOC  as a means of countering misinformation such platforms might convey. Social media for good or ill wasn’t going away; my decision was to attempt to track and counter misinformation conveyed during a crisis.

Times have indeed changed since the sun set on my “day” – in 2023  the human fascination with artificial intelligence (AI ) is intensifying. We’re still easily captivated by  “shiny technological objects” but even some of AI’s most fervent developers are suggesting caution in its application before fully embracing its seductive possibilities.

“2001  – A Space Odyssey” may well have seemed boring to some, but that might be the point.  Just maybe the message really was that sometimes technology, taken for granted and allowed to  advance in relative obscurity , could suddenly burst on the scene, catching society unprepared. Certainly, “Dave” underestimated HAL’s capability and “resolve” before it was too late – for Dave.

Dave’s fate aside, the lesson I took from the film is that technology is either mankind’s servant or its’ master. It may be difficult to manage the relationship in such a way as to assure a happy ending for everyone, but we had best give it a try.

The recent National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) Annual Forum devoted considerable attention to the potential pluses and minuses of reliance on AI. In a  panel discussion entitled  “AI Unleashed: Revolutionizing Emergency Management Amidst Risks and Challenges…” it was noted that the ability to  synthesize data and documents for rapid reporting and decision making can minimize the complexities inherent in  sifting through material. The  peril derives from the ease with which malign actors can distort  data to the detriment of disaster victims, eroding trust in government’s competence, compassion, and reliability. – More on that in my next post.

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Jim has spent 3 decades in emergency management, including 12 years at the local level as director of the City of Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management and 8 and a half years as Washington State’s Emergency Management Division Director. Jim retired from state service in March 2013. Jim also served as President of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) from January 2011 to October 2012. He is currently sole proprietor of “EM Northwest Consulting” based in Seattle.

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