Artificial Intelligence and The Human Condition
One of the great impacts of science on the human world is that as our knowledge of the world blossomed, the world itself became ever less comprehensible to humans. The “mathematization of physics, by which the absolute renunciation of the senses for the purpose of knowing was carried through, had in its last stages the unexpected and yet plausible consequences that every question man puts to nature is answered in terms of mathematical patterns to which no model can ever be adequate, since one would have to be shaped after our sense experience.” For Hannah Arendt writing in The Human Condition, this separation between “thought and sense experience” means that man can create a man-made reality that defies the human capacity to understand or predict that world. This is the reason why it is now scientists, more so than politicians, who are the true actors of our time. They initiate processes that they themselves cannot understand and whose outcome augurs something truly new and unforeseen into the human world. As we struggle to contemplate the impact of humanly developed but now inhumanly powerful artificially intelligent machines, we would do well to recall some of the lessons Arendt drew already from the victory of science and the modern age.
As we struggle to contemplate the impact of humanly developed but now inhumanly powerful artificially intelligent machines, we would do well to recall some of the lessons Arendt drew already from the victory of science and the modern age. One consequence she recognized was the retreat of philosophy in the face of scientific doing. The point is that science proceeds now freed from human control and thus without need for philosophical justification or philosophical guidance. A second consequence is that that “process” overtakes the product in science so that there is no end point in the development of science. This deprives “man of all fixed and permanent standards and measurements, which, prior to the modern age, have always served him as guides for his doing and criteria for his judgment.” The rise of scientific processes, Arendt saw, carries with it the “radical loss of values.”
Slavoj Zizek approaches the present panic around the rise of artificial intelligence in a similar way. The perceived threats by elites in the rush to implement and unleash artificially intelligent machines threatens the power structure of elite governments and corporations. What will come from artificial intelligence is not domination by those who control them, but surprise on the part of those who have created machines they cannot control.
Today’s “post-human” sciences are no longer about domination. Their credo is surprise: what kind of contingent, unplanned emergent properties might “black-box” AI models acquire for themselves? No one knows, and therein lies the thrill – or, indeed, the banality – of the entire enterprise.
This surprise shows both the power of those coders and engineers now bringing about the means for the total transformation of the human world, and also their inability to foresee or control the consequences of that transformation. A “pause” in the development of AI will not help because the human capacity to think the dangers of AI and the human ability to control that development is simply inadequate. We are entering a new world that is unknowable, unpredictable, and inhuman. This will clearly change the nature of power, in ways we cannot yet understand. As Zizek writes:
Humanity is creating its own god or devil. While the outcome cannot be predicted, one thing is certain. If something resembling “post-humanity” emerges as a collective fact, our worldview will lose all three of its defining, overlapping subjects: humanity, nature, and divinity. Our identity as humans can exist only against the background of impenetrable nature, but if life becomes something that can be fully manipulated by technology, it will lose its “natural” character. A fully controlled existence is one bereft of meaning, not to mention serendipity and wonder.
The same, of course, holds for any sense of the divine. The human experience of “god” has meaning only from the standpoint of human finitude and mortality. Once we become homo deus and create properties that seem “supernatural” from our old human standpoint, “gods” as we knew them will disappear. The question is what, if anything, will be left. Will we worship the AIs that we created?
There is every reason to worry that tech-gnostic visions of a post-human world are ideological fantasies obfuscating the abyss that awaits us. Needless to say, it would take more than a six-month pause to ensure that humans do not become irrelevant, and their lives meaningless, in the not-too-distant future.