The era of AI is threatening much more than jobs: it’s putting our humanity in peril
These past few weeks, we have been bombarded with news stories, editorials, YouTube videos, and Instagram posts all talking about the new ‘revolution’ which we all should brace ourselves for: the advent of artificial intelligence (AI). It seems potentially endless, both in ability to create and ability to better itself. But for all its qualities, and all the advances it might enable us to attain, AI scares me—and I don’t believe I’m alone in this. It feels like we’re on the cusp of a great overhaul of life. Just like the Internet changed the way in which we communicate, and later permeated all of society, AI seems like an even greater shift still: it could almost completely supplant the need for human creativity. However, this piece is not about the technicalities of artificial intelligence — which I neither can nor really want to understand — but rather about the postmodern angst it has awoken in me.
If you’re like me and were interested in what these AI algorithms were capable of creating, you’ve probably ended up in a few rabbit holes on the Internet about this topic. I was absolutely blown away by the architectural beauties that AI generated, ranging from ‘Jellyfish haussmanian’ to ‘Future Renaissance’, or the poems ChatGPT was able to write for me in the style of Byron. I feel as if I’ve just discovered a technology which is monumentally new and different, which is actually capable of autonomous functioning, and which threatens everything I thought I could rely upon: reality.
Up until the modern era (beginning circa 1800), the average person did not feel like history was dictated by change. Growing up in a peasant town, to peasant farmer parents, one almost inevitably would end up just like them, farming land, having children, and bringing them up to continue the ploughing. This existence, beyond all the pain, submission, and lack of social mobility, can be envied in one particular manner by our contemporaries: the knowledge one could have, or at least the educated guess one could make, about the future. They might not have been able to predict the changes in fashion or the evolution of architectural style, but they would have been quite capable of determining what their place in the world would continue being, what conditions they would presumably live in, and what the world would more or less look like.
That feels like something that has been irretrievably lost. We now live in a world dictated by change rather than by continuity: everything is the ‘next big revolution’, everything is brand-new and innovative, the next edition of an object is always on its way; nothing lasts forever, and it increasingly seems that nothing lasts at all.
The way in which, say, the Internet changed our lives is quite different from what AI might do. The Internet changed the way in which we carried out our pre-existing practices: we went from CDs to MP3, from VHS to Netflix, from paper maps to Google’s ones. But AI is noticeably different, because it could potentially replace us, and replace human creativity and creation.
My questionnings led me to prompt ChatGPT to write a story in the style of Proust (one of my favorite authors), to see what it could create: in about ten seconds, it created a three-hundred word snipbit, particularly unoriginal in its use of the motif of a memory-awakening object, a tea instead of a madeleine — quite the innovation. But how harrowing to see that a tool that’s only seven years in the making and only open to the public since November 2022 can write stories about tea it has never drunk and the memories it could never have, copying the greats of humanity. What will it be capable of in five, or even ten years? The tool, which one could describe today as perhaps more artificial than intelligent, could be very capable of generating texts, images, and ideas no human ever could or would. What then, would be the point of Humanity being creative, if a computer can do it all?
This reminded me of another invention which shook me upon discovery, the Library of Babel. This online platform generates random combinations of 3200 characters, of which it has already made 104677 (for comparison’s sake, the Universe contains approximately 1080 atoms). This means that, theoretically, somewhere within that huge database could be anything and everything humans have ever and will ever create — mankind could therefore be incapable of ever creating something that is new. The difference between this and AI is that Babel is a randomly generated series of characters, and to get a single coherent sentence one must sift through pages and pages of gibberish. AI is actually capable of making sense, it is actually capable of attaining the human quality of intellection.
Addressing the challenges and opportunities posed by AI should be center stage for all decision-making bodies, from our universities to our governments: for now it seems like nobody is actually reacting to the potentially groundbreaking shift we are living through. Some, like the International Baccalaureate Organisation, are now accepting the use of AI in essay-writing (in-and-of itself a rather senseless decision in my view), but most, including the University of St Andrews, don’t really seem to have reacted.
We need to assert human control over an artificial outgrowth with incredible capacities. Can our educational systems built upon research and essay-production survive the advent of ChatGPT? Could our journalists, writers, and poets survive the development of tools able to do their job faster and cheaper, all while having a boundless pool of ‘artificial’ creativity? Can anyone truly resist the advent of AI? If the answer is no, then we need to ban or limit AI. If the answer is yes, then we still need to defend our humanity against such a threatening technology. That is why we need directives now, while AI is still burgeoning, to be able to guide its growth in a manner which makes it a tool for humans, and not the other way around.
Our principal and uniting role as a species is the defence of our existence. Though such logic is seemingly lost on long-term issues with diffuse effects (such as climate change), vis-à-vis the advent of something that could very concretely, rapidly, and irreversibly destroy a part of what makes us human — our capacity to think and create — there should be a consensus. The maintenance of the humanity of Humanity should be our principal concern, even if it means sacrificing certain technological evolutions and the opportunities they lead to.
I want to continue being as human as possible; I don’t want academia to be replaced by artificial brains; I don’t want artists to be replaced by computers able to generate verse, prose, and images; I don’t want to read news written by non-humans; I don’t want the small things that make us who we are to disappear. Most of all, I don’t want to raise my children in a world where humans play a secondary role. The capabilities and applications of AI, though promising great change and opportunity, must be limited, perhaps not in the interest of any specific individual, but in the interest of humanity and the beauty we are already very capable of creating by ourselves. Choose real intelligence over its artificial emulation, choose Proust over ChatGPT.
Illustration: Clodagh Earl