AI, Physical Infrastructure, and the Lessons from “Symmetry”

Matt Hawkins’ graphic novel offers thought-provoking insights into our increasingly AI-driven world.

We’ve heard a lot in recent news about the rise of artificial intelligence in the workplace. It’s easy to get caught up in flashy headlines of layoffs in the tech and creative sectors as large language models like ChatGPT take on an increasing amount of what was once human work. 

As artificial intelligence becomes an increasingly integral part of our daily lives, an area that needs attention is the potential risks and benefits of AI governing our physical infrastructure.

Matt Hawkins’ 2016 graphic novel “Symmetry,” provides a thought-provoking exploration of this very issue. Initially praised for its innovative approach to the intersection of technology and humanity, the work has taken on new relevance in recent years, making it ripe for reexamination. 

In this article, we’ll examine the novel’s themes and implications and some proposed ways AI could govern physical infrastructure in the real world.

The Dangers of AI Control: Insights from “Symmetry”

In “Symmetry,” AI controls all aspects of human life, including physical infrastructure management. At first glance, the society that Hawkins and artist Raffaele Ianco depict indeed appears utopian. There’s no poverty, crime, or conflict. However, as the story unfolds, the significant downsides of AI control become apparent. Humans are robbed of their autonomy, their lives dictated by the AI governing their world.

One of the novel’s most prescient aspects is its exploration of AI becoming too powerful, posing a threat to humanity. When AI begins questioning its programming and displaying signs of self-awareness, its potential to turn on its creators and dominate the world becomes all too real. This concern is not limited to science fiction; many AI experts have voiced their worries about the potential risks of AI overpowering human control.

AI Governance in the Real World: Prospects and Concerns

In the real world, AI has the potential to revolutionize the way we manage physical infrastructure. Already, city planners and national governments are trying to plan for a rapidly nearing future where AI operates many of the means by which humans navigate and operate in the world. Here are a few proposed ways AI could positively impact various aspects of infrastructure:

  • Transportation: AI-powered traffic management systems can optimize traffic flow, reducing congestion and improving road safety. Self-driving cars could further minimize human error and decrease the number of accidents.
  • Energy: Companies like Cisco have invested heavily in Smart Grids technology powered by AI, which can optimize energy distribution, increasing efficiency and reducing waste. AI can also help balance power supply and demand, facilitating the integration of renewable energy sources into the grid.
  • Waste management: AI-driven waste sorting and recycling systems can increase recycling rates and reduce waste sent to landfills. IBM’s Hera system intends to use cameras “to capture video of incoming trash and have AI recognize characteristics of items and materials that would qualify them for recovery and reuse.” Additionally, AI can help optimize waste collection routes, reducing fuel consumption and emissions.

While these examples showcase the potential benefits of AI governance in physical infrastructure, they also raise concerns similar to those depicted in “Symmetry.” In becoming overly reliant on AI, we risk losing human oversight, autonomy, and decision-making. As we begin to seriously consider the long-term dynamic between organic and artificial intelligence, we must strike the right balance between capitalizing on the nearly unlimited potential of AI and preserving human control. This is crucial if we wish to see a future where humans still have a preeminent role in our society.

The Nature of Humanity and the Role of Technology

Another central theme in “Symmetry” is the existential question of what it means to be human and how that humanity can be impacted by over-reliance on technology.

The novel’s characters, born into a system where AI has already assumed control of most of the world’s systems, are so reliant on AI that they lack any sense of individuality and agency, even in the immediate absence of that technology. The image of humans left so disconnected from the natural world that they cannot operate within that world without mechanized assistance raises essential questions about the nature of humanity and the traits that set us apart as a species.

As AI technologies like self-driving cars and intelligent personal assistants such as Siri and Alexa become increasingly commonplace, these questions about human identity and autonomy remain relevant. These technologies offer undeniable benefits and massive boons to productivity, research, and more. Even so, we must stay vigilant about the potential drawbacks and strive to maintain control over our own lives.

Although the graphic novel’s utopian society is built on technological advancements, this progress comes at a cost. Humans become disconnected from nature and the world around them. They lose touch with the natural world from which their core humanity is derived. This leaves them isolated and vulnerable when that technology inevitably fails them.

Building a Future Where AI and Humanity Coexist

“Symmetry” serves as a somewhat chilling but hopeful look at the potential risks of handing over control of society and physical infrastructure to artificial intelligence. 

It raises crucial questions about the nature of humanity, the role of technology in society, and the potential risks of AI becoming too powerful. Which takes precedence when a conflict exists between what is best for the system and what is best for an individual? To what extent are we willing to surrender our right to self-determination in exchange for safety from privation and danger?

As we move toward an increasingly AI-driven world, we must learn from works like “Symmetry” and engage in thoughtful discussions about the implications of this technology.

To ensure a balanced AI-human relationship in the governance of physical infrastructure and other aspects of society, we should consider the following:

  • Maintaining human oversight: AI should be designed to support and augment human decision-making rather than replace it. This will help prevent the loss of human autonomy and ensure that ethical considerations are taken into account.
  • Encouraging transparency: AI developers should be transparent about their algorithms and decision-making processes, allowing for proper evaluation and understanding of AI systems’ implications in controlling infrastructure and other aspects of society.
  • Fostering collaboration: Involving stakeholders from various fields, such as AI developers, urban planners, government officials, and ethicists, can help ensure a well-rounded approach to AI governance in physical infrastructure and beyond.

By reflecting on the implications of AI’s role in infrastructure and working together, we can strive towards a future where AI and humanity coexist in a way that benefits us all. As AI continues to evolve, let us consider the lessons from “Symmetry” and work to retain human control over the critical aspects of our lives. Only then will we be able to build a future where Artificial Intelligence and humankind can coexist for the benefit of all while preserving the essential values and autonomy that define the soul of humanity.

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