The Post-Human Desert

Image: Pavel Danilyuk
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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

The development of Artificial Intelligence will lead to the end of capitalism as we know it

The institute's open letter The future of life Demanding a six-month precautionary pause in the development of artificial intelligence has already been signed by thousands of high-ranking figures, including Elon Musk. Signatories fear that AI labs are "locked in a headlong rush" to develop and implement increasingly powerful systems that no one - including their creators - can understand, predict or control.

What explains the explosion of panic among a certain sector of the elites? Control and regulation are obviously at the heart of the story. But by whom? During the proposed half-year break, when humanity can take stock of the risks, who will defend it? Since Artificial Intelligence labs in China, India and Russia will continue to work (possibly in secret), a global public debate about the problem is inconceivable.

Despite this, we must consider what is at stake here. In his 2015 book, Homo Deus, historian Yuval Harari predicted that the most likely consequence of Artificial Intelligence would be a radical division – far stronger than class division – within human society. Very soon, biotechnology and computational algorithms will join forces in the production of "bodies, brains and minds," resulting in a widening gap "between those who know how to develop bodies and brains and those who do not." In this world, “those who took the train of progress will acquire godlike capabilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will be doomed to extinction.”

The panic that the letter about Artificial Intelligence reflects is part of the fear that even those on the “train of progress” will be unable to ride it. Our contemporary digital feudal masters are scared. What they want, however, is not public debate, but an agreement between governments and technology companies to keep power in its place.

The massive expansion of Artificial Intelligence capabilities is a serious threat to those in power – including those who develop, own and control Artificial Intelligence. It points to nothing less than the end of capitalism as we know it, which manifests itself in the prospect of a self-reproducing Artificial Intelligence system that will require less and less inputs of human agents (algorithmic trading in the market is only the first step in this direction). The choice we are left with will be between a new form of communism and uncontrollable chaos.

The new ones chatbots will offer many lonely (or not so lonely) people endless evenings of friendly conversation about movies, books, cooking or politics. Repurposing an old metaphor of mine, what people will have is the Artificial Intelligence version of decaffeinated coffee, of sugar-free soda: a friendly neighbor without dark secrets, an Other who will simply accommodate to your needs. There is a structure of fetishistic denial here: “I know very well that I am not talking to a real person, but I feel like I am – and without any of the risks that entails!”

In any case, a careful examination of the letter on Artificial Intelligence shows that we are looking at yet another attempt to prohibit the impossible. It's an old paradox: it's impossible for us as humans to participate in a posthuman future, so we must forbid its development. To orient ourselves in the face of these technologies, we must ask Lenin's old question: Freedom for whom to do what? In what sense were we free before? Were we not already much more controlled than we realized? Rather than complaining about the threat to our freedom and dignity in the future, perhaps we should instead consider what freedom means now. Until we do this, we will act like hysterics who, according to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, are desperately looking for a master, but one that we can dominate.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that, due to the exponential nature of technological progress, we will soon have to deal with "spiritual" machines that will not only demonstrate every sign of self-awareness, but far surpass human intelligence. However, we must not confuse this “post-human” position with the paradigmatically modern concern to conquer a total technological dominion over nature. What we are witnessing, instead, is a dialectical reversal of this process.

The “post-human” sciences of today are no longer after domination. His belief is the surprise: what kind of emergent, contingent and unplanned properties will “black box” Artificial Intelligence models acquire? Nobody knows, and that's the thrill – or, really, the banality – of this whole enterprise.

Thus, at the beginning of this century, the French philosopher-engineer Jean-Pierre Dupuy detected in the new robotics, genetics, nanotechnology, artificial life and Artificial Intelligence a strange inversion of the traditional anthropocentric arrogance that technology allows: “How can we explain that science has become such a 'risky' activity that, according to some top scientists, it is today the main threat to humanity's survival? Some philosophers answer this question by saying that Descartes' dream – 'becoming the master and possessor of nature' – has gone wrong, and that we must urgently return to the 'dominion of dominion'. They didn't understand anything. They do not see that the technology that is taking shape on our horizon through the 'convergence' of all disciplines is aimed precisely at non-domination. Tomorrow's engineer will not be a sorcerer's apprentice through negligence or ignorance, but by choice.”

Mankind is creating its own god or devil. While the outcome cannot be predicted, one thing is certain. If something like this “post-humanity” emerges as a collective fact, our worldview will lose all three of its defining and overlapping subjects: humanity, nature, and divinity. Our identity as humans can only exist against the backdrop of an impenetrable nature, but if life becomes something that can be completely manipulated by technology, it will lose its “natural” character. A fully controlled existence is an existence devoid of meaning, not to mention chance and charm.

The same, of course, goes for any sense of the divine. The human experience of "god" makes sense only from the point of view of human finitude and mortality. When we turn into homo deus and we create properties that appear to be "supernatural" from our old human point of view, the "gods" as we know them will disappear. The question is what, if anything, will remain. Will we worship the artificial intelligences we've created?

We have every reason to fear that techno-Gnostic visions of a post-human future are ideological fantasies obscuring the abyss that awaits us. Needless to say, it will take a lot more than a six-month break to ensure humans don't become irrelevant, and their lives meaningless, in the not-too-distant future.

*Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, he is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on the portal Project syndicate.


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