The Machines Have Already Risen

We shouldn’t fear AI. We should be fighting what’s already built.

Doug Bierend
6 min readDec 26, 2022

Leading industrialists have issued dire warnings about the emergence of machine intelligences equal to or greater than humans. The development of superhuman AI, they say, is inevitable, a claim that is given credence by the accelerating pace of advancement in the field. The fear is that this will bring extremely disruptive consequences that are impossible to predict, that the machines could develop their own ideas, priorities, and strategies for achieving them well beyond the means of mammalian brains to comprehend, let alone deter.

We are of course primed to imagine what such a scenario might look like. Films like The Terminator have impressed the image of bleached bones and charred suburbs stretching to the horizon, punctuated only by gleaming metal sentinels surveying the ashes with their red eyes. ‘Skynet’ has become a catch-all term for any computer system that slips the surly grips of the scientists who built it, gaining self awareness and therefore a sense of self-protection, identifying the mammals rushing to pull its plug as its primary threat. With no need to eat, drink clean water or breathe clean air, and with a means of controlling every system the humans have built and connected to it, ‘the machines’ make the rational choice of destroying the biosphere, leaving us to fight for survival on a dying planet.

Recent advances in computer intelligence and robotics are enough to make anxieties about a robot takeover seem prescient. But science fiction is more often a diagnosis of the present than a prediction of the future, and we don’t have to wait for some milestone in AI before the machines rise —they already have.

Nearly everything that’s worrisome about an AI takeover of Earth — the degradation of the biosphere, the loss of human agency under an inscrutable industrial logic, the violent reshaping of the landscape and subjugation or elimination of people — are already upon us. Step outside, and observe how much of the world around you is committed to just one deadly machine: the automobile. Globally, the beast of the oil and gas industry is actively burning and corrupting entire swathes of habitat, leaving landscapes fit for any post-apocalyptic story set in the supposed future.

Everything we do, the air we breathe, the work we undertake, the living world of which we’re part are deeply and increasingly shaped according to the cold calculus of profit and growth. What is concerning should not be the black-boxed mind of a sophisticated machine, but rather the basal instincts of extractive capitalism that have already insinuated themselves across the planet by brute mechanical force. Such force doesn’t require advanced computers to manifest. It just requires an incentive structure that leads a critical mass of people to prioritize making or retaining their own individual wellbeing over the loss of collective means of survival. We call this set of incentives capitalism and the pursuit of a middle class lifestyle, all of which fosters a single-minded focus on self-preservation that keeps us lashed to the machine and its logic.

By raising the living standards of enough people, and becoming entrenched enough that to reverse would require struggling to upend a comfortable status quo, ‘the machines’ have already achieved hegemony. The difference between where we stand and the worst visions of apocalyptic techno-dystopia is mostly a matter of degree. If we want to avoid that picture of the world, it’s not going to come through AI alignment, but by abandoning the effort to constantly reshape our lives and world according to the abstract, transactional priorities of growth steadily making that world a reality. Otherwise, we continue playing the machine’s game.

The world of the ‘machine takeover’ is one devoid of biodiversity and relational complexity. It’s a world where the highest ‘intelligence’ has wiped out all other forms of life, whether through extraction or extermination, in pursuit of its comfort and survival. What is the opposite of that sterile world? It is one of ecological depth, of conviviality among agents of all sorts, human and otherwise, in a process that builds and enriches life. Clearly, that doesn’t describe our current paradigm. But of course that can (and must) change.

The process that leads to the dystopia of science fiction is already underway; there is no need to wait for the mushroom cloud or the ominous klaxon announcing it. We are actively, if gradually, building towards the bone-strewn world we’ve taught ourselves to fear, meanwhile spinning up scary stories about it, in what seems like a kind of self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophesy. In the same way that a zombie movie is as much about questioning the humanity of the protagonists as it is about the monstrousness of the zombies themselves, the subliminal question of the ‘rise of the machines’ trope lies in whether we will come to perceive the world in the cold, zero-sum terms of the systems we build, or retain a sense and reverence for the more-than-human world of life within which we are ineluctably entangled.

Maybe science fiction has simply given us an aesthetic language for understanding the larger consequences of a revolution that, in day to day, seems so mundane. It may be even be a little disappointing that the machine takeover doesn’t take the impressive form of monstrous robots trudging through the kipple, but rather the quiet loss of biodiversity, mounting pollution, inequity and violence as decision-makers and their constituents grow more comfortable. But apocalypse tends to operate against the preferences of those experiencing it, and the upside here is that it’s an apocalypse of our making, so it could be one we unmake.

Another resonant vision of the robot apocalypse is found in the Matrix: A digital super intelligence destroys the natural basis of biological survival, replacing it and the whole world with a simulation piped into (mostly) blissfully unaware brains. Both the Terminator and the Matrix feature the new biblical plagues of nuclear war, ecological collapse, and high technology making tools out of its creators. But one key way in which the Matrix differs is that, in its telling, humans are very much part of the machine, not a metal skeleton wearing skin but a machine with humanity at its heart. This more closely resembles the reality: a world of alienated people devoting their life energies to a cold, exploitative, inhuman machine built by humans.

There is of course plenty of cultural and philosophical critique around these films and science fiction generally. But the part I will take away from the Wachowski siblings’ version of dystopia is that, in it, we have the opportunity to shed the machinery that is bending us to its will—which is, of course, by definition an extension of our will. Concerns about a machine takeover are rather convenient, because they externalize the threat. They put us in a more familiar and even comforting context of declared, armed conflict against a dangerous other. This is the way we’ve traditionally dealt with what we can’t understand or control. But of course, what we’re fighting isn’t external; it’s emerging from within us, from that very need for control.

The war for the future isn’t with the machines, it’s with ourselves. We can only win it by seeing past the machine to the world we want to realize, and making that matter more than whatever rationalizations the mechanical perspective might offer.



Doug Bierend

Wandering freelance writer and author living in upstate New York.