The Crack Where the Light Comes In03-25-2023
Jaron Lanier is “the godfather of virtual reality.” Always one of the most original thinkers on technology, Lanier takes on the recent obsession about Chat GPT and other “large language models” by arguing, provocatively, that AI does not exist: .”My attitude is that there is no AI. What is called AI is a mystification, behind which there is the reality of a new kind of social collaboration facilitated by computers. A new way to mash up our writing and art.” For Lanier, what we call artificial intelligence is actually a “mash up.” It is a series of algorithms and code that collects all our writing and then employs statistical tables to discover correlations and predict answers to questions. It is not intelligent, although it may appear to be so. What AI does offer, however, is the promise of spiritual transcendence. There is a hope that AI will save the world from human stupidity; and there is the fear that AI will consume humanity and destroy us, its creators. In both instances, “we seem to want to be endlessly charmed, frightened, or awed. Is this not a religious response?”
Lanier offers a “Jewish take on artificial intelligence.” Jews created the golden calf to worship; and Moses destroyed the golden calf and prohibited its worship. AI is like a golden calf, something we worship and fear all at once. What is needed, Lanier writes, is another path, one he finds in the Talmudic traditions. He writes:
You can read an article about Lanier’s take on AI by Simon Hattenstone here. In the article, Lanier is quoted as saying:
The clear path to make the situation better, to avoid reality collapse and a sense of looming human obsolescence, is to make our new technologies more like the Talmud. There is no reason to hide the people.
There is no reason to hide which artists were the primary sources when a program synthesizes new art. Indeed, why can’t people become proud, recognized, and wealthy by becoming ever-better providers of examples to make AI programs work better? Why can’t our society still be made of humans?
We have no way to understand the world in an entirely rational, perfect way. There will always be seams. Mathematics cannot be complete and consistent, as Gödel showed, and physics is still split by a schism between quantum mechanics and relativity. Economics is still not reliably predictable, and perhaps will never be perfected. Relationships still go bad, no matter how much therapy and work the parties put in.
As Leonard Cohen put it, “there’s a crack in everything; that’s where the light gets in.” We have the remarkable power to nudge where the crack resides, but we cannot get rid of it. (Seeing that there is a crack is absolutely different from filling that crack with superstitions. Accepting mystery is how you get out of magical thinking.)
That transcendent patch can either be positioned around get-rich-quick schemes, tech visions, or other golden calves, or we can find it in the mysteriousness of the person—of human life and of its efforts. We can accept that the way people have the magical, transcendent experience of experience is verifiable within ourselves, but must be treated as a matter of faith in each other.
The Talmud positions the mysteriousness in a way we can live with. That people have perspectives is the mystery of the universe. It is divine.
“From my perspective the danger isn’t that a new alien entity will speak through our technology and take over and destroy us. To me the danger is that we’ll use our technology to become mutually unintelligible or to become insane if you like, in a way that we aren’t acting with enough understanding and self-interest to survive, and we die through insanity, essentially.”
When Lanier writes about avoiding the collapse of reality, he sounds an Arendtian theme. Arendt herself wrote deeply about the threat to humanity from the rise of science and even artificial intelligence. What can protect humanity, she argues, is the act of thinking what we are doing. In thinking, let the light of humanity in through the cracks. I’ve recently published a book The Perils of Invention with a series of essays on Arendt and the confrontation with artificial intelligence.