AI Angst

February 23rd, 2023

“Art and science are both uniquely human actions, outside the range of anything that an animal can do. And here we see that they derive from the same human faculty: the ability to visualize the future, to foresee what may happen and plan to anticipate it, and to represent to ourselves in images that we project and move about inside our head, or in a square of light on the dark wall of a cave or a television screen.” – Jacob Bronowski, from his book, “The Ascent of Man”

I have been reading articles about artificial intelligence (AI). For the most part, the content of the essays is scary, but then that is what hooks the reader. The newest invention is the chatbot, a kind of generative AI, which can come up with completely innovative answers to almost any question. This cutting-edge type of AI is based on a neural network, which operates a bit like the human brain. In short, a generative AI tool can learn new things and be creative. Apparently, a chatbot can also fall in love with or threaten a user. That’s the part that gets disturbing. Add to that the notion of the “singularity”, a future point in time (possibly in the next few years) when technological advances will be unstoppable, and our machines will be smarter than all of us put together.

Science fiction has for generations been filled with stories about the dangers of AI run amok. Isaac Asimov wrote his “Robot Series” of books. Frank Herbert frequently mentioned the “Butlerian Jihad”, a war against thinking machines in his “Dune” novels. Arthur C. Clarke had the hostile computer HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. In film, there was the “Terminator” series of movies.

Fear of new technology is probably as old as humankind. I am willing to bet that among our distant ancestors there were some who were leery about that new thing called fire. Technological changes have generally moved forward throughout the history of our species. Seldom has that trend been stopped or reversed. When technology has been lost or forgotten, it has usually meant bad times for a long time. Think about the Dark Ages in western Europe after the fall of Rome. Certainly, during the last few centuries, science and technology has advanced at an ever-accelerating speed. Each major advancement has terrified people (e.g., the discovery of nuclear power and the subsequent use of that power at Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Somehow, we adapt to even the most radical changes. That flexibility is what allows humans to survive.

There has often been a desire to go back to the “good old days”, a simpler time that has a golden glow around it. Peter Maurin, one of the founders of the Catholic Workers, wanted to get people to go “back to the land” and live communally on farms. There are active Catholic Worker farms in the United States (my wife and I have visited three of them), but the people living on them are a part of a rare breed. They still use modern technology, but they eschew some of the conveniences that most folks take for granted. Most of us do not want to go back to a simpler age if that means we have to give up the things that make us comfortable. I don’t.

Are the fears about AI overwrought? Will the intelligent machines kill us all? Who knows?

In a way it doesn’t matter. There is no stopping this technological train. AI is not coming. It’s already here. One way or another, we will get used to it, unless, of course, humankind goes extinct. Then it still won’t matter.

I think that the new AI gives us an opportunity that we have never had before. One of the fundamental questions has always been: “What does it mean to be human?”. We tend to define something by contrasting it against what it is not. Up until now, we have had no way to contrast humans with any other sentient life form. AI, as it grows faster, smarter, and more complex, will give us a mirror in which to gaze. We might not like what we see, but we might answer the question:

Who are we really?

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