Martin LeFevre: The surreal hype, false hope and potential harm from AI are flooding the field with would-be philosophers. Even pundits are saying things like, “To make good on its promise, artificial intelligence needs to deepen human intelligence.” But how can intelligence be deepened when people don’t know what it is?
There is the idea that even nascent AI (like ChatGPT and other “LLMs”), which spit out information so quickly, and in such novel combinations that they seem to have sentience, are just the next big thing after the internet. But AI is to the internet as Ben Franklin’s printing press is to the first personal computers.
Therefore the notion that we are “making the same mistake we made with the internet — measuring A.I.s potential benefits without considering its likely costs” – misses the mark. Even the same journalist, again waxing philosophical, later writes more accurately: “AI is an acid test for human cognition.”
And since our powers of cognition are what has defined us as humans for tens of thousands of years, and allowed us to dominate (and decimate) the Earth, the philosophical (and spiritual) question is: Do we have a capacity beyond cognition, including hackneyed references to emotion and creativity, that can redefine us as human beings?
At its current stage, AI summarizes huge amounts of information it’s been fed and creates content that resembles and even adds content. As others have indicated, that’s often just what humans do.
Already however, “we’re much closer to A.I. friends, lovers and companions becoming a widespread part of our social lives.” Thus the alienation and fragmentation that are inherent tendencies of ‘higher thought’ are at risk of being artificially mollified by a higher form of thought.
In short, AI is compelling a fundamental reexamination of what it means to be a human being, something that was formerly the purview of rare birds and gadflies — non-academic philosophers — but now open to speculation by computers scientists and journalists. The latter even quote Socrates to support their musings about how AI will affect productivity.
“Human beings need to build the workflows and office environments around AI in ways that don’t overwhelm and distract and diminish us.” That’s an awfully low bar. Besides, it’s too late, since the misuse of the internet with social media has already accomplished that.
To gain an insight into what intelligence is, and begin to move in that direction as individuals if not as a species, we need to ask the right questions and hold them, without demanding or even seeking answers. An insight is not an answer, but a flash of understanding, which abides if one values and holds it in one’s heart and not just in the mind as memory or knowledge.
So what is the difference between insight and cognition? Is it the same as the difference between a human and a human being? I feel so, as my nephew showed me many years ago at two and half years old.
I had flown back to the Midwest for my youngest sister’s wedding. It was a big Catholic affair, and I spent the better part of the week prior with my oldest sister’s son Brett, who was two and half at the time. We hit it off famously, and had a lot of fun playing games or going for walks in nature.
My parent’s house was filled with guests as my youngest sister and new husband opened presents. Having left the Church as a senior in high school after a couple of years of contemplation and research, I sat in a corner and non-judgmentally watched the proceedings.
Brett walked up to me through the crowd and asked, “What are you?” Thinking he had simply confused his pronouns, I replied, “You know who I am Brett, I’m your uncle.” He shook his head and walked away.
A few minutes later he came up again and asked the same question more insistently, “What are you?” Having worked with little ones in California, I realized that he was asking me something specific. And since he was just acquiring language, that was as much explanation as I was going to get. So I said, “Sorry Brett, I don’t understand what you’re asking me.”
A few minutes later he charged me from across the room, and I knew I was in trouble. At the top of his little lungs he yelled, “WHAT…ARE…YOU?!”
To my credit, I thought, as the adults within earshot turned to look at what was going on, was, ‘to hell with what they think; I have to understand what this little guy is asking me.’
It was my problem, not Brett’s. So I held his gaze and waited silently for at least 30 seconds for the insight. Suddenly there was the flash of understanding.
Having spent nearly a week together, and now around all these other people – family and friends – Brett’s developing mind and brain perceived that his uncle was so different from the other people that he had to know what he was.
With the insight came the right response: “I’m a human being Brett, a human being.” His eyes lit up like I’ve never seen a child’s eyes light up, and he threw back his head laughing, repeating, “Being, being.”
Reflecting on the out-of-the-mouths-of- babes encounter, I realized r the first time that one was different. I accepted it in light of Jesus admonition: “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.”
AI’s challenge is not about “processing information.” Most information is spam anyway. It’s about giving to AI what AI is surpassing us in, and no longer defining our humanness in terms of our vaunted cognitive powers.
And it’s about developing a greater capacity altogether (insight, intelligence), which will enable us as human beings to use this quantum leap of technology wisely.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.