Put humanity aside, you are delaying progress. We have passed the stage of utility for Homo sapiens; now is the dawn of the Gay Faber time. The idea that “I think therefore I am” has become odd in this new era of builders and designers. But has our continued obsession with technology and progress really succeeded in reducing our capacity for humanity?
In his new book, The Artificial Intelligence Myth: Why Computers Can’t Think Like We Do, author and pioneering natural language processing researcher, Erik J Larson, studies the efforts to build computers that process information the way we do and why we are much further from having AIs equivalent to humans that most futurists would like to admit.
Extract of The Artificial Intelligence Myth: Why Computers Can’t Think Like We Do by Erik J Larson, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by Erik J. Larson. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Technoscience triumphed in the 20th century, but skeptical responses to this also continued. Hannah arendt, the philosopher made famous by her phrase “the banality of evil”, in reference to the Nazi trials at Nuremberg, argued that Comte’s technoscience – which by the mid-twentieth century had certainly not lost its momentum in as a philosophical idea – amounted to nothing less than a redefinition of human nature itself. Arendt emphasized the classical understanding of humans as homo sapiens – literally, wise man – and the historical emphasis on wisdom and knowledge rather than technical skills, and argued that to embrace technoscience as a worldview is to redefine oneself as Gay faber – man the builder.
Gay faber, in Greek terms, is a person who believes that techne – knowledge of craft or manufacturing, the root of technology – defines who we are. The Faberian understanding of human nature fits perfectly not only with Comte’s nineteenth-century idea of a utopian technoscience, but with the twentieth-century obsession with building ever more powerful technologies, resulting in the great project, by fact, to build us – artificial intelligence. . This project would be meaningless if traditional notions of the meaning of humanity had remained intact.
Arendt argued that the seismic shift from wisdom and knowledge to technology and construction represented a limiting and potentially dangerous understanding of ourselves, which would not only ensure that technological development continued unabated, but that more and more we would regard technological successes as meaningful statements about ourselves. In other words, we were reducing our own value to increase, beyond any wise or reasonable measure, our estimate of the wonders that could be built with the tools of technoscience.
Von Neumann’s initially enigmatic comments about approaching a “singularity” as technological advances accelerate become clearer in light of his contemporary position with Arendt. Although scientist and mathematician Von Neumann has not (to our knowledge) further explained his words, they perfectly reflect Arendt’s insistence on the deep meaning of technoscience for ourselves and our future – for what philosophers of technology call “the human condition.” It might seem perverse to Comte that technology could accelerate beyond our control, but nowhere in his writings can one discover any idea of the point Arendt (and others) would make, that by defending technoscience as a human response to human problems, we are also engaged in the project of redefining our understanding of ourselves. The shift towards techne rather than, say, episteme (knowledge of natural phenomena) or sapientiae (wisdom relating to human values and society) makes it difficult to form a meaningful idea of human uniqueness. (Even bees, after all, are builders, in their case of hives).
Putting technology at the center also makes it possible to see a person as something that can be built, because it implies that there is nothing more for a person than a superior capacity to build ever more advanced technologies. Once on this path, it’s a little journey to artificial intelligence. And here is the obvious link with the intelligence errors first made by Turing and then prolonged by Jack Good and others to the present day: the ultimate triumph of Homo faber as a species is to be built. This is, of course, precisely the stated purpose of AI. Exploring whether the project can be successful or not will necessarily take us into the deep waters of understanding the nature of ourselves.
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