Ten Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence

1. Appearance

The term “artificial intelligence” first appeared in the 1950s, with the advent of the first computers, capable of performing certain tasks that only human intelligence had previously been able to accomplish. Computing was the very first faculty to be transferred to a machine. This explains why what we call a “computer” in English has kept its original name of computer, i.e., “calculator.” Automated calculation was the first example of artificial intelligence.

Why does calculating no longer seem to us to fall under the heading of artificial intelligence? This is an example of what the Anglo-Saxons call the “AI effect”: as artificial intelligence develops, earlier achievements are no longer regarded as artificial intelligence, but as standard machinery. Thus, for example, character recognition, fingerprint recognition and so on. In practice, then, artificial intelligence refers to what “intelligent” machines are just beginning to be able to do.

2. Downgrading the Human

When they first appeared, electronic calculators were described as “electronic brains.” Over time, as machine performance increased, the metaphor was turned on its head: it was no longer the computer that was compared to a brain, but the brain to a computer. The human being is now seen as just another “information-processing machine.” Today, the term “intelligent agent” is used to describe any “system,” natural or artificial, that interacts with its environment, draws information from it and uses this information to maximize its chances of success in achieving its goals or those assigned to it. In this context, artificial intelligence finds itself completely emancipated from the human model from which it once took its name. On the one hand, many aspects of human intelligence remain properly human. On the other hand, artificial intelligences are now capable of performances beyond the reach of any human intelligence. Although designed by humans, they are endowed with certain intellective capacities that are truly superhuman.

3. The Race for Power

Since the 19th century, technology has been indispensable to power. By technology, I am not referring to technique in general, which is as old as humanity itself, but to that very recent part of technique which is inseparable from the mathematical sciences of nature that emerged in Europe from the 17th century onwards, and is inconceivable without them. It was their technological superiority that enabled Westerners to dominate the world for a time. On the threshold of the 20th century, Hwuy-Ung, a Chinese scholar exiled in Australia, confessed his admiration for what he saw: “The marvelous inventions of this country and of Western nations are, for the most part, unknown to us, and seem incredible.” But did these wonders make people happier? The answer was not self-evident. One thing, however, was beyond doubt: “marvelous inventions” conferred unparalleled power. Hence this observation: “Those who do not follow the trend set by the most advanced nations become their victims, as we are experiencing.” After the Second World War, China set out to become a major technological power in its own right, in order to emerge from the long series of humiliations inflicted on it, from the outbreak of the first Opium War in 1839 to the Japanese invasion in 1937. Today, artificial intelligence is becoming a decisive component of technology, and if you do not want to be at the mercy of those more powerful than you, you need to invest in this field.

4. Survival in the Digital Jungle

Power is not the only issue. For as long as there have been homo sapiens on earth—some 300,000 years—they have lived most of their lives in Paleolithic conditions. It was in these conditions that the faculties of our species developed. It goes without saying that these skills include an extraordinary ability to adapt to new environments. However, since the industrial revolution, the environment in which a growing proportion of humanity is called upon to live has been changing so rapidly that, in many respects, our natural faculties, including intelligence, have been taken by surprise. If natural intelligence used to enable us to orientate ourselves correctly in the natural environment, known today as the biotope, we now need artificial intelligence to orientate ourselves correctly in an environment that is itself artificial, the technotope. And for this, artificial intelligence is indispensable. Just think, for example, how helpless we would be to use the Internet if we could not rely on search engines that incorporate forms of artificial intelligence.

5. The Control Society

Among the threats posed by the all-out development of artificial intelligence, the public’s greatest fear is undoubtedly that of social control, through the innumerable digital data now generated by our lives. After all, the word intelligence also means “information gathering.”

One thing is clear, however. By massively rejecting the old-fashioned social control constituted by the inculcation of moral rules, and the discredit that came with breaking them, by fleeing the control exercised by neighbors in traditional communities, late moderns believed that it was possible to do without social control. But a society without social control is no longer a society—it is chaos. To protect against chaos, more and more precautions have to be taken. So, for example, people living in big cities are obliged to equip themselves with digicodes, intercoms and armored doors. The more “open” society becomes, the more its members have to lock themselves in. In this respect, the automated surveillance, assisted by artificial intelligence that is taking shape, has all the allure of Nemesis, the Greek goddess who punished hubris, the excess of beings who did not respect the limits of their condition. The individual who pretended to escape all control sees control returning to him in another form.

6. Permanent Formatting

Another problem is that underneath its apparent neutrality, the machine can conceal biases that are all the more pernicious for being difficult to detect. A search engine, for example, responds to queries with lists of answers, and we do not know what went into their creation. And we do not want to know—the use of search engines would lose all interest if we had to know the details of the search itself. But this means that we are totally subject to the biases included in them, whether these biases are intentional or not. What guides us can also lead us astray, and what informs us can also manipulate us. Academics have subjected the chatbot ChatGPT to a political positioning questionnaire. The result was that OpenAI’s chatbot “has the profile of a mainstream liberal and pragmatic Californian,” very much in favor of multiculturalism, welcoming migrants or minority rights, and that if it were registered to vote in France it would probably vote Macron or Mélenchon. Let us deduce the effects of living in symbiosis with ChatGPT.

7. Looming Acedia

The development of information technology was supposed to free us from routine tasks. In fact, IT “extends the routine of its procedures everywhere.” It is feared that artificial intelligence will only intensify the process to the point of nausea. Workers who put their hearts into their work when the tasks they have to perform call on all their faculties, no longer know what meaning to give to their work when they become mere operators of machines that do the “intelligent” part of the job for them. If you take less trouble, you may also find yourself doing less well.

8. Moral Stunting

By constantly talking about artificial intelligence, making ever more use of it and marveling at its prowess, we are becoming accustomed to making artificial intelligence the paradigm of intelligence—and at the same time devaluing the essential characteristics of human intelligence, and no longer cultivating them. Long ago, God appeared to King Solomon in a dream and said: “Ask what you want me to give you.” Solomon replied, “Give your servant an intelligent heart, to govern your people, to discern between good and evil” (1Ki 3:5-9). The first character of intelligence, here, consists in discerning between good and evil. This is the intelligence that Solomon demonstrates when he dispenses justice. If we become accustomed to seeing artificial intelligence as the model of intelligence, we run the risk of leaving the heart in unintelligence.

Some will argue that it is possible to include moral considerations among the criteria taken into account by artificial intelligence in its operation. In this case, however, it is as if moral reflection had been carried out once and for all, before being delegated to the machine. A faculty that is not constantly used will wither away. Hence moral stunting.

9. Intellectual Stunting

Artificial intelligence is a product of technology, itself intrinsically linked to the development of modern science, to the constitution of mathematical sciences of nature. The aim of these sciences was to make the world comprehensible to us, while at the same time increasing our capacity to act upon it, according to the Baconian equation of knowledge = power. What is happening today?

The power we have acquired over the world has led us to transform it to such an extent that the world resulting from this transformation has become, in some respects, more opaque to us than nature of old was. Our natural faculties are overwhelmed—which is why we increasingly need artificial intelligence to find our way around it, and simply to live in it. But truly interesting artificial intelligence is that which produces results, not just faster and better than we could achieve without it, but results that escape our understanding. Artificial intelligence cannot therefore be considered as a simple decision-making tool: insofar as the genesis of the indications it gives us escapes our control, we are led to simply defer to these indications—which means, in the end, that the decision-making tool decides for us, or more precisely, that our decision resolves itself in the use of the tool. In this case, the tool does not so much increase our capabilities as completely delegate our power to an obscure tool. As a result, our intelligence, which made it possible to set up these extraordinary artificial intelligence devices, finds itself put on vacation by them; and, by dint of being on vacation, it loses the habit of work, and even the ability to work. The loss of control is not, as in a number of dystopias, linked to intelligent machines becoming malevolent towards humans and seeking to enslave or eliminate them, but to the fact that, by constantly relying on them, we become incapable, crippled.

By slouching on a sofa and playing online games, teenagers in developed countries have seen their physical capacities decline by a quarter over the last four decades. The average IQ has also fallen over the last twenty years. Many factors must be contributing to this phenomenon—but at least part of it has to do with the delegation to machines of an ever-increasing number of tasks that used to require our intelligence. At the end of the 1960s, Louis Aragon was well aware of this process: “Progress that gradually deprives me of a function leads me to lose the organ. The greater man’s ingenuity, the more he will be deprived of the physiological tools of ingenuity. His slaves of iron and wire will reach a perfection that the man of flesh has never known, while he will gradually return to the amoeba. He will forget himself.”

10. Connected Chicks

When I was a child, a playground riddle asked: what’s small, yellow and very scary? The answer was a chick with a machine gun. Today, we could ask, what’s small, yellow and thinks it’s the lord of creation? A connected chick. Connected immatures, that is what we are becoming. If the power stops flowing to the sockets, if it stops recharging the batteries, if our earthly and celestial roots are atrophied, it is not just our devices that will be neutralized, it is we ourselves that will be annihilated.

Olivier Rey is a mathematician and philosopher of science whose area of study is science and society, with a focus on transhumanism. This article appears through the kind courtesy of La Nef.

Featured: Ai-Da, the first humanoid robot, with self-portrait, 2021.

Yuval Noah Harari: Fabulist of AI

Yuval Harari points out on page 45 of his book, Homo Deus, that the priority projects in the 21st century will be those aimed at protecting Humanity and the Planet (both with a capital letter) from the dangers inherent in “our own power.” This approach, although it might sound grandiloquent and even palatable, is in fact nothing more than a contradiction emptied of real content. Harari speaks of a hypothetical human power in charge of protecting humanity—but how can a human power protect humanity, if humanity itself represents that power? Harari’s thesis seems to imply the existence of a human entity that is apart from Humanity itself to which he refers, and that perhaps encompasses all members of the species Homo.

In the same text, Homo Deus, Harari clearly argues that population growth poses a challenge to the ecological balance of the planet. According to this author, “Humanity has been slow to recognize this danger and has acted insufficiently until now.” He adds that, despite all the rhetoric about pollution, global warming and climate change, most countries have not made significant sacrifices or adopted serious policies to improve the situation. It is curious that Harari, who talks so much about a “Global Humanity” that has awakened and seeks new challenges for the future, recognizes that, when it comes to taking concrete political action, there are specific states and political societies within them, which do not always interact in the harmonious and peaceful way that his humanitarian idea seems to suggest.

This recognition leads us to ask ourselves, how does Harari believe that these political societies and concrete states are linked to this Humanity considered as an attributive totality? According to Harari, national states represent an obsolete mechanism that are hindering the development and evolution of Sapiens on a global scale. In this sense, it can be said that Humanity is to Harari what the Absolute Spirit is to Hegel and History is to Francis Fukuyama (2006).

If the Hegelian Fukuyama spoke of the end of History in 1990, the Hegelian Harari proposes that Humanity itself has reached a culminating point in its evolution, being on the verge of becoming something more than the sum of all Sapiens gathered in national societies. The next step, it seems, will be the merger between man and machine, which could take us beyond a historical existence proper to something different. In this fusion, even the finitude of geographical time could be radically transformed.

These ideas of Harari converge, and perhaps reflect, the most recent obsession of this author, which he has been referring to since the beginning of 2023. We will refer specifically to Artificial Intelligence (AI) in its various versions, commercial and non-commercial. In his Homo Deus and his 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari readily wonders how AI will treat human beings once it exercises control over them. His answer is that these technologies will treat us the same way we treat animals (Harari, 2017). These reflections have given Harari many a sleepless night in recent months, and there has been a veritable flood of articles, lectures, and interviews in which he warns of the dangers these technologies pose to “Humanity”(Anthony, 2017).

Here, Harari suggests that our worst nightmares will come true, not because of AI per se, but because of the disruptive power they could have in the wrong hands. In other words, in hands other than the social groups that, according to Harari, would be fit to run the world according to their parameters. In this sense, it is possible to find an extensive catalog of quotes and apocalyptic comments by this author on the subject, alerting us to the need to control these technologies. A control that, of course, should be exercised by the reliable and “rational” Humanity; that is, the one that Harari and his followers represent.

In this sense he tells us:

It could soon be a reality. On a more prosaic level, we could soon find ourselves having lengthy online discussions about abortion, climate change, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine with entities that we think are human, but are actually AI. The problem is that it is utterly futile for us to spend time trying to change the stated opinions of an AI bot, whereas the AI could hone its messages so precisely that it has a good chance of influencing us (2018).

The issue with the example cited is not so much the cases mentioned per se, considered as self-evident universal concerns, but the reference to “we.” This plural that Harari employs to articulate his ideas can be interpreted as an allusion to Global Humanity. Yuval does not seem to realize that his “critical” argument, his warning about the sinister possibilities of AI could easily be adopted by political forces allied to Harari and his followers. There is no rational argument that both sides, “democrat/rational Obamaharian” and “totalitarian, irrational Putintrumpeans” are not capable of the same manipulative stratagems to achieve their goals. Which, on the other hand, is not surprising, since this is a part of the political exercise as it manifests itself in material reality.

Moreover, Harari ignores the complex web of power relations and economic interests that also underlie so-called “democratic societies.” Democracies are not simply “conversations between people” (The Economist, 2023; The TED Interview, 2022), but complex structures of power and hierarchy, with inequalities of wealth and privilege, and constant struggles for control of the state and resources.

At this point we could ask ourselves the following question. If this Global Humanity of which Harari speaks does not exist, and what really prevails are different human groups, divided by cultures, languages, nations, classes, sexes, etc., the question that arises is: who is Harari really addressing in his analysis? Or, in other words, who is or are the Humanity to which this “oracular philosopher” of the next step lectures every three years? The answer is simple: the sociologically identifiable and perfectly categorizable elites, whose ideology considers that they are inhabitants of the planet, beyond the national borders that the material geopolitical reality presents. It is they who, in practice, Harari believes should take control of AIs, since this tool, even if dangerous, in the right hands could be very useful, as the author himself acknowledges.

Reflecting on these assertions, it becomes clear why Harari is so influential among the social groups and institutions that promote globalism. This author is little more than the last of the prophets of a global world in evident decadence; and although it is likely that his fate will be similar to Fukuyama’s, and he is headed for absolute oblivion, we still do not know what impact he might continue to be have and what other measures will justify his delusions.

And it is not that his work lacks interest, but that it has been conceived and written within the framework of an understanding of a world that seems to be ever closer to the beginning of its decline. This world is none other than that of the Pax Americana, of the American empire as the “Guarantor of Freedom” and of the imposition of the Western vision of reality by means of dollars and aircraft carriers. Current events suggest that this hegemony is coming to an end, which does not imply the disappearance of the power of the United States, but rather its disappearance as the only dominant empire.

In a truly multipolar world, Harari’s philosophy has no place, as it overlooks the dialectics between individuals, classes, states and empires. In his abstract and politically metaphysical thinking, where myths underpin the architecture of reality, there is no room for a plurality of this nature. Similar to Harari, the same can be said of the social groups that promote his work (2018), who have begun to understand that the realities on which politics, trade, economic development, free markets and, in short, “progress” are based, are sustained in dialectical power relations where violence and even war are means of communication as tangible and real as treaties and agreements.

A philosophy such as Harari’s, which interprets these geographical and political realities as vestiges of a certain type of “mentality,” rather than as mechanisms inherent in social, political and historical relations, is likely to become increasingly incompatible with the world that actually exists. An increasingly segmented world landscape, where the Hararian mythologies of “Humanity,” “Progress,” “Nature,” “Homo sapiens,” etc., have no chance of explaining anything concrete, in which his philosophy will be condemned to the status of an anecdotal curiosity of a bygone time.

In his call for “Humanity” to control AI, Harari actually addresses the last bastions of the post-Cold War world. That is, a call to the remnant elites defending the global order, pompously rebranded with the label “new world order.” It is these who, ultimately, he says should control not only these technologies, but the destinies of Sapiens. Once again, Harari ignores the tensions and divisions inherent in different human groups, from which these superior Sapiens are not exempt, either.

In conclusion, it is essential to approach Harari’s considerations from a critical viewpoint, unmasking the assumptions and implications underlying his postulates. This is not so much because of the force of his arguments, but because of the instrumentalization that certain sociologically defined groups make of them. While his works provide to some degree useful insights into our relationship with technology and its possible impact on our future, it is vital not to overlook that these futuristic visions can be exploited to justify and perpetuate existing inequalities and concentrations of power, especially by attempting to ignore them.

Instead of uncritically promoting Harari’s perspective of a “Global Humanity,” we must strive to imagine alternative futures, certainly—but where the diversity and multiplicity inherent in the ever-interconnected humanity that inhabits our planet is realistically contemplated. It is crucial that technology be understood and used as a tool to empower individuals—but we must remember that these individuals are also part of groups, part of specific states, which can sometimes become part of larger dynamics linked to empires. With this realistic view of the social and political, perhaps we can become proactive architects of our own future, rather than mere spectators in a show orchestrated and controlled by an increasingly decadent global elite.

Duzan Ávila is a sociologist and researcher at the University of Waikato. Department of Language Arts and Education.

Between Political Theology and the Artificial Demiurge

The second decade of the 21st century is characterized by the growing centrality of biopolitics (understood as the political use of biomedical knowledge to control and condition life processes) in public discourse, encompassing both the beginning and end of life and the suspension of personal freedom for health reasons.

The scope of biopolitical elements in today’s society proves Pope Francis right when, in his effort to rehabilitate politics, he argues that everything that happens in the polis concerns the common good and has political significance. However, the emergence of biopolitics—together with the inclination to therapize politics—has been made possible by the advent of a relatively new ruling class, the technocrats, who place themselves above politics, and make good Paul Valery’s saying that politics consists in “preventing people from interfering in what concerns them.” And indeed, technocracy is by definition—and above all—the depoliticization of public affairs, at the cost of moral judgments losing their primacy to gradually give way to the generalization of an uncritical and passive attitude towards the reality of power, as Dalmacio Negro has repeatedly pointed out.

This moral desiccation of the political reflects, in short, the triumph of structural capitalism, in the sense that one of its pillars is that the primary function of the Law (and therefore of the legislator) is independent of value judgments and any teleological aspiration, and is limited to the regulation of realities, so that these can be expressed as free contractual relations, whose mercantile fulfillment is guaranteed by state institutions.

The importance of this conception of the law for the flourishing of Protestant capitalism was pointed out by Max Weber, when he noted that it was precisely the interests of the English capitalist classes and the guilds of lawyers that prevented the development of a codified legal system embedded in the bureaucracy of an administration of justice, creating the appropriate legal conditions—first in England and later in the United States of America—for the successful structural development of capitalism within a legal framework based on an “amorphous, precedent-bound, empirical law” that allowed legal professionals to give legal form to capitalist business in such a way that the axis of the political shifted to the industrialized economy, making technique the ultimate foundation of modern politeia.

The political implications of this divergence from the continental legal tradition were extensively studied by Carl Schmitt in his writings on the concept of Political Theology, which allowed him to draw a series of sociological analogies between the modern State and the Catholic Church, as the legitimate heir of the Roman legal tradition and the uninterrupted representative of its founder. However, although Schmitt himself called these studies in Weberian terms a sociology of juridical concepts, the truth is that Carl Schmitt’s political theology is more than a sociology or a history of ideas, and constitutes rather a methodology for establishing a correlation between concepts of a juridical-political nature and concepts of a theological-metaphysical type. “Method” comes from the Greek μέθοδος (“way to follow to go beyond”), for Meta (μετα, beyond), and Hodos (ὁδός, way).

Nota bene: throughout his work, Schmitt deploys four theological-political dimensions; one centered on sovereignty, others on representation, and a third on the Katechon, each of which he couples to a given theological-political category. Thus, Schmitt establishes a correlation between sovereign power and divine omnipotence; second, between the mediating capacity between the divine and the human by the Church and political representation; and third, between the idea of the Katechon and real political power.

In the context of apocalyptic literature, the function of the Katechon is to temper the eschatological enthusiasm of the early Christian church that anxiously awaits the return of Christ while at the same time trying to avoid the disorder and anarchy of the last days. Schmitt uses this concept in the key of Political Law, to advocate that it is imperative that chaos does not reach (nach oben kommt) the level of the State; for which a reins (Katechon) are necessary to restrain (niederhält) anarchy. Therefore, the figure of the Katechon as used by Schmitt is to be understood as an allegory of a strong state.

The path followed by Schmitt runs through the historical processes from which the structures common to the theological and the political emerged, characterized by the successive occupation of the central political pole by a social tendency corresponding to a given epochal period, from which a correlation between the spheres of the theological and the political can be derived. The three main phases were the shift from the theological to the metaphysical, from the metaphysical to the moral, and from the moral to the economic, each serving to rationalize a particular worldview that served as legitimization of the ostentation of political power by certain groups and not others. In more concrete terms, the process described by Schmitt encompasses the transition from monarchical absolutism/theism to constitutionalism/theism, which led to liberal democracy/laicism, and, according to Carl Schmitt, moves in the direction of anarchy/atheism.

It is easy to see that the constant element in this transition is the progressive secularization of sovereignty, or, in other words, a process of gradual negation of the principle of sovereignty under the rule of the economy-technique pair, whose logic (which is claimed to be inevitable and immutable) of the market grants it cultural and political hegemony, a phenomenon that we can characterize as an autopoietic process-progress, which, in addition to reproducing itself, recreates all the conditions necessary to renew itself and expand sustainably according to a technological determinism that requires less and less human intervention. (In ethical terms, the modern financial system is essentially amoral, as it accepts the subordination of production processes to the accumulation of capital without any social responsibility). Naturally, such a system operates without needing the hypothesis of God, because it renounces any transcendent perspective, so that neither religion, nor even politics, are in any way the apex of the whole. At the same time that this happens, the subjective perception of a differential between the temporal and the spatial is dissolved in the shrinking of geography, which, due to technological instantaneity, is on the verge of achieving the end of space before reaching the end of history. And if this system is, besides being self-referential, atheological, because it dispenses with God, it also dispenses with man, because from the systemic prism, the meaning of a conception of human nature is as redundant as that of the transcendent: a person is only a vector, a focal point around which a structure of productive expectations deriving from economic processes materializes. (According to Niklas Luhmann’s interpretation, of the concept of autopoiesis as applied to sociology, an autopoietic system is endowed with a self-referential character not limited to the level of its structures, but has the capacity to construct itself the elements that constitute it, which develop by having not only a meaning for itself, but also the capacity to have a meaning—Autopoiesis, Handlung und kommunikative Vertändigung. Zeitschrift fur Soziologie, Heft 4, 366-379).

As Carl Schmitt said, the new self-made human being is not a new God. Rather, what takes place is the dehumanization of society, and with it, its depoliticization, because history, in the political sense, ends when the eschaton arrives; but, as Walter Benjamin pointed out (“Capitalism as Religion”), this is an empty eschatology, which does not provide redemption or point to a beyond; on the contrary, because it is immanent to a concrete situation, it can only lead to social entropy. In this way, politics (in the aforementioned key of eticity to which Francis alludes in his eagerness to rehabilitate politics), comes to an end when the expectation of the Schmittian thematization of the eschaton opens up, accelerating the emptying of the political as a struggle for social justice and the defense of human dignity. This vacuum is then filled by technocracy and the cult of technology, which, as Habermas argues, tend to impose an unavoidable instrumental rationality whose result is that, rather than the power of technicians, technocracy is a set of techniques at the service of power. That is, the current crisis of politics, under the parameters set out here, is due to an idolatry that reflects the dominance of the economy and technology in today’s world, where politics is reduced to the performance of a merely managerial function, subordinated to the economy and subordinate to the technology that homogenizes thought and lapses the political conflict inherent to the pluralism of wills, arrogating to itself the sole representation of the objective interests of the majority.

Santiago Mondejar Flores is a consultant, lecturer and columnist on geopolitics and international political economy. This article appears courtesy of Posmodernia.