In addition to following the increasingly complex abilities of various AI technologies, I have also been carefully watching society’s response to these systems. Are we worried about our jobs? Do we welcome our coming overlords? Do we cower in fear? Do we dwell on how best to augment our own abilities? Do our minds go blank with an inability to predict what is to come? Or all of these and everything else in between? AI seems to reduce anyone who encounters it to an atavistic version of themselves.
One common refrain involves noting the extent to which generative AI can do things that have long thought to be the province of humanity. And depending on one’s mood, this can cause greater or less cause for concern. For when it comes to doing something that seems “human,” this can generate not just worries around automation and job security, but a certain amount of existential dread. Specifically, if these AI abilities are thought to have been unique to human beings, where does that leave us?
This sort of worry is a constantly shifting baseline. We might have once thought tool use was the sole province of humans, or maybe it was language, and or even the concept of transmissible culture. But each of these are features of other members of the animal kingdom.
So too with every advance in AI: checkers, chess, art, mediocre poetry; all are falling to machines.
In The Most Human Human (2011), Brian Christian explores this shift:
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that every psychologist must, at some point in his or her career, write a version of "The Sentence." Specifically, The Sentence reads like this: “The human being is the only animal that______.” Indeed, it seems that philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have been writing and rewriting this sentence since the beginning of recorded history. The story of humans’ sense of self is, you might say, the story of failed, debunked versions of The Sentence. Except now it's not just the animals that we're worried about.
These changes over time can cause a certain amount of confusion and cognitive dissonance. As Christian noted, the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter had argued that chess was something that requires sophisticated thought and subtle intelligence. Until, that is, Deep Blue and Garry Kasparov.
So after their first match in 1996, Hofstadter moved the goalposts: “My God, I used to think chess required thought. Now, I realize it doesn’t.”
This is reminiscent of “God of the Gaps” arguments in theology: What is God? God is everything that is not explained by science. But then we have the advent of evolution, and astrophysics, and cosmology, and neuroscience, and suddenly God doesn’t seem so big anymore. According to this methodology, God is defined into nonexistence by the march of progress.
Don’t make the same mistake that some theologians did when it comes to AI and our unique humanity. For this uniqueness might all go away.
The key is not to focus on our unique humanity but to instead focus on our quintessential humanity. Some of these quintessential features might be things that AI can do. And that’s fine. But the quintessence—the features of our humanity that we care most about—is what we should want to care about.
Can AI do boring and crappy jobs? Hooray. I didn’t view that as quintessentially human anyway. Can AI write poetry? Wonderful, so can a non-trivial fraction of other human beings. Each of us must determine what is our quintessence, whether it’s spending time with family, writing blog posts, gardening, or playing chess. Just because these are not necessarily uniquely human behaviors doesn’t make them any less quintessentially human.
To be clear, this is not some metaphysical essence for why humans are put on this Earth. That is for each of us to figure out, to imbue our lives with meaning. But that’s very different from uniqueness.
We must focus on searching for meaning and our quintessential humanity. And if you need some resources for this, here is my ever-growing canon of modern wisdom literature.
To return to The Most Human Human, Brian Christian wasn’t just excited by the year when the Turing Test would be passed, but by the following year:
No, I think that, while certainly the first year that computers pass the Turing test will be a historic, epochal one, it does not mark the end of the story. No, I think, indeed, that the next year’s Turing test will truly be the one to watch—the one where we humans, knocked to the proverbial canvas, must pull ourselves up; the one where we learn how to be better friends, artists, teachers, parents, lovers; the one where we come back. More human than ever. I want to be there for that.
Well, the Turing Test has been passed. We are in that year now. So let’s be the best—the most quintessential—human beings that we can be. ■
The Enchanted Systems Roundup
Here are some links worth checking out that touch on the complex systems of our world (both built and natural):
🝤 Up and Away: “Ascent diagrams tracked hot air balloon voyages by plotting their altitude on the vertical axis and approximating travel-over-land, from left to right, on the horizontal axis. Their curves’ steep climbs and descents give a sense of the ride.”
🜸 Lessons from The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro: “If you asked me to identify a Straussian reading of the books, this would be it. That these volumes are not written to educate the public (who are portrayed as secondary characters anyways), but rather to train the next Lyndon Johnson.”
🝳 Professional human loser: ‘If AI really does “take over,” I would very happy to spend my days as a Professional Human Loser…’
🝖 Prompt injection explained, with video, slides, and a transcript
🜹 AI Is Reimagining the Way We Play Role-Playing Games: ‘Hidden Door is starting with a literary and cinematic classic, and it allows players to ask for their preferred twist on the setting. :Our first adaptation is The Wizard of Oz, which is in the public domain. … You can go into our system and be like I want The Wizard of Oz but, you know, gritty murder -- or I want The Wizard of Oz, but it's fun happy pancakes time.”’
🜸 New Proof Finds the ‘Ultimate Instability’ in a Solar System Model: “For the first time, mathematicians have proved that planetary orbits in a solar system will always be unstable.”
🝊 The Problem With Counterfeit People: “Companies using AI to generate fake people are committing an immoral act of vandalism, and should be held liable.”
🜚 How People Reacted to Greatest Inventions in History: From Printing Press to Generative AI: “Even experts and journalists, who are usually expected to be advocates of technology, were sometimes skeptical about computers. They didn’t believe that computers would become a part of everyday life and considered computers in the home to be a fad.”
🝳 ‘Serenteletonic’: A Long View neologism: “Composed of three morphemes seren-tele-tonic, the meaning within the word is, in essence, a feeling of awe when we recognise our position within long-term time”
🝤 The Great Wave: spot the difference: “Scientific researcher Capucine Korenberg zooms in on Hokusai's world-famous wave and explores how subtle changes in the impressions and design can tell us about the making of this masterpiece.”
🝖 Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: A novel “set in a dreamlike alternative reality.”
Until next time.
I just finished Piranesi, it was incredible. One of the most interesting and enjoyable novels I’ve ever read
I have literally been asking myself, "where is Sam in and with the AI conversation?" :)
However, I must admit, I didn't see this one coming--i.e., you writing about the quintessence of life. I was expecting you to speak on the technology...or frankly, the day that may come where AI is too smart and complicated for us to understand and handle.
But, I am enormously pleased and "wowed" by your words. "The key is not to focus on our unique humanity but to instead focus on our quintessential humanity." Goodness, that is perfectly stated.
As a man who ponders "life"--and also a man of Faith (albeit sloppy most of the time)--your words resonated deeply with me. Thank you.
I am also a skeptic. I wonder if the masses will get so caught up and engaged with AI that they (we) will lose sight of what is real. Perceptually, humans are vulnerable. I imagine that we have yet to see the level of "intelligence" that is to come. And so, will it be so intelligent and compelling that we are convinced that robots can think and feel?
Great article as always,