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Let’s Stop Worrying About AI and Start Paying Attention More

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Young man with hearing problems or hearing loss. Hearing test concept.

Stop worrying so much about artificial intelligence. The dangers it poses are not new ones, just more intense versions of old ones. We have been dealing with new technologies since the beginning of the human experiment. Let’s look at one of the most important things we do, which has been endangered by technology for a long time — paying attention to each other.

Paying attention requires effort. Looking away is easier, but then we become isolated and lonely. That’s where we are now, through no fault of artificial intelligence — looking away from each other. Current technology gave us the cellphone, a device that tempts us into private worlds. No wonder loneliness and depression are on the rise. We need to face this problem head on.

We used to pay a lot of attention to each other in a theater or in church. In Shakespeare’s day the audience was outside and fully illuminated. Actors had to pay attention to the audience if they wanted their attention in return. But within a generation after Shakespeare, theater went indoors and put the audience in partial darkness. That made it harder to pay attention.

I have a soft musical instrument called a recorder. Suppose I play a Bach chorale at the request of the audience. The room is well lighted, but I cannot hold the audience’s attention past the first line.

One member feels he must open his cellphone to check a meeting time. Another, seeing this, will remember she has to respond to a text message from a friend. If she can use her phone, others feel that they can do the same. Cellphones open all around. Some of the phones are so small I cannot see them as phones — a watch here, an earbud there. How can my performance of Bach compete?

As they turn to their phones, they isolate themselves not only from me but from one another. They fail to connect with one another through sharing the pleasure of a concert. But they are human, and they need to connect. The best way to connect is to pay attention to one another. Theater gives people a good opportunity for paying attention. So does church.

We are losing these opportunities. Theater attendance will probably be down by 50% next year, according to Washington Post columnist Peter Marks. He starts out with this alarming fact: “Theater is in free fall, and the pandemic isn’t the only thing to blame.”

The main culprit, I believe, is the technology that invites us to stream our entertainment in the privacy of our homes. Church attendance also is in rapid decline. Concerts are giving way to private headphones, movies to home TVs. Formal theater thrives only in a few centers such as New York and Chicago.

Still, we know how to get people’s attention when we need it. I have had many years’ experience in classrooms. I rarely lecture for more than about 10 minutes, which is a normal attention span. After that, minds start to wander.

So, after 10 minutes I divide students into small groups and give them questions to answer for a grade they will share. I monitor groups to make sure that students are paying attention to one another. That’s more valuable than merely paying attention to me. I have seen many friendships form in these groups, and one recent marriage. My method works as well online as in person.

Artificial intelligence will probably make old dangers worse. But we know how to counter the old dangers. We need not cave into them. Over many generations we have had to learn how to attract and maintain attention.

Our history on this should be a comfort. Let’s revive our old ways of paying attention and find some new ones. Then we will know what to do when artificial intelligence makes the old problems more intense.

Paul Woodruff is a professor of philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin. His latest book is “Surviving Technology.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Austin American-Statesman and the San Antoino Express News.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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