published : 2023-09-29

Is AI a blessing or a curse? UPC bar code developer says 'it could go either way'

Pioneering engineer behind IBM's development of the UPC weighs in on artificial intelligence

A photo of Paul McEnroe holding a prototype of the Universal Product Code (UPC) scanner, taken with a Nikon D850.

Artificial intelligence seems to be everywhere these days, with more companies integrating the technology into their systems and developers across the globe finding new ways to use it, for both good and bad.

Some experts say AI could spell the end of humanity, while others say it could save it.

But one pioneer of the digital age says only time will tell.

Paul McEnroe led the team at IBM that developed the Universal Product Code (UPC) fifty years ago, the bar code used on every product sold in supermarkets and retail stores, along with the scanner that reads them.

The technology has contributed both to economic prosperity and quality of daily life the world over.

A close-up shot of an AI-powered robot interacting with a group of people, emphasizing the potential impact of artificial intelligence on daily life, taken with a Canon EOS R.

FOX Business asked McEnroe his opinion on whether AI could kill us all or benefit humanity in the long run.

"I think it could go either way," he replied.

Prior to leading the bar code project, McEnroe worked in IBM's research lab in the '60s.

He recalls the company working on what he said was actually "the first thing that would be sort of like AI," but it wasn't called AI at the time.

It was a small computer they called "shoe box," which they tried to teach speech recognition and to play chess.

An image showcasing the evolution of computer technology, from a vintage '60s computer system to a modern high-performance AI server, taken with a Sony A7R III.

McEnroe points to how much more powerful computers are now, handling millions, billions, even trillions of instructions in a very short period of time.

He says the technology is now "so much faster than when I was fooling around with it in the 1960s." So, today's AI is "going to be incredibly effective."

He says he is worried about AI already being used to create deepfakes to deceive people, which he calls "a real serious problem."

"We can do some fantastic things with it in the positive sense," he told FOX Business. "But, also, you can do fantastic things in the negative sense, too."

Earlier this month, McEnroe released a book detailing his story of leading the team that developed the UPC, titled, "The Barcode: How a Team Created One of the World's Most Ubiquitous Technologies." It is available on Silicon Valley Press and wherever books are sold.