AI: Too Smart for Our Own Good?

By Michael Lederer

An essay ‘about’ AI, writ­ten ‘by’ AI. Maybe even ‘for’ AI? As my kids say, “Are we there yet?” It feels less like we’re cross­ing the Rubi­con, more like cross­ing the space-time man­i­fold. Our “Hal moment.” [Edi­tor’s note: Hal, the most infa­mous engi­neer­ing icon in literary/cinematic his­to­ry, who attempts to take over the space ship from the humans aboard.] Com­put­er both provider and con­sumer, what could go wrong?

I’m not writ­ing this as one who knows much about AI, but as one who, like most of us, knows so lit­tle. Sud­den­ly (for those of us who weren’t pay­ing much atten­tion), it’s every­where. Like the music of Ravel’s Bolero swelling, grow­ing stronger and more dom­i­nant by the moment, wash­ing over us.

Head­lines like this recent gem: “Forty-two per­cent of CEOs say AI could destroy human­i­ty in five to ten years.” That makes melt­ing ice look like an incon­ve­nience. Exis­ten­tial threat of the day, pick your fla­vor. It’s like ask­ing the con­demned, “At what time tomor­row would you like to be shot? We have slots open in the morn­ing, after­noon, or evening. Take your pick.” It’s not hard, even for the tech­ni­cal­ly illit­er­ate like me, to imag­ine untold ben­e­fits of AI (and, com­ing soon to a world near you, AGI – Arti­fi­cial Gen­er­al Intel­li­gence – intel­lec­tu­al­ly equal or supe­ri­or to humans). Human cre­ativ­i­ty, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, effi­cien­cy enhanced beyond our wildest dreams. Chaplin’s Mod­ern Times on steroids.

After claw­ing our way through an Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion and late 19th cen­tu­ry advances like steam to oil, har­nessed elec­tric­i­ty, tele­phone, radio; a 20th cen­tu­ry so chock­ablock with inno­va­tions from antibi­otics to human flight to Hiroshi­ma to the inter­net; our own 21st cen­tu­ry off with a boom as Steve Jobs showed how eas­i­ly we could slip a com­put­er into our pock­ets, social media reduc­ing six degrees of sep­a­ra­tion to just one, nan­otech rescal­ing our world (2 nanome­ter tran­sis­tors nar­row­er than a strand of human DNA, and shrink­ing still). To quote Steve Jobs’ last words: “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!”

And now, this. Lone­ly? Can­cer? Plas­tic in the oceans? AI to the res­cue! But (it’s a big BUT) from the Be Care­ful What You Wish For depart­ment, as AI morphs from help­ing with our jobs to replac­ing them, a warn­ing from Gold­man Sachs: “Gen­er­a­tive arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence tech­nolo­gies have the poten­tial to trans­form the labor mar­ket, expos­ing the major­i­ty of the nation’s jobs to automa­tion. The tech­nol­o­gy can cre­ate new con­tent such as text, images, audio, video, and code.”

Even assum­ing a guar­an­teed income, assured by a sys­tem that will pro­duce with­out (much) human labor, ask your­self what you would do if you no longer had to work. Myself, I’d go nuts. For the luck­i­est among us, work is more than earn­ing an income. It con­nects to our iden­ti­ty, sat­is­fac­tion, sense of purpose.

Also, as com­put­ers unrav­el secrets at a pace impos­si­ble to imag­ine, do we real­ly want to strip so much mys­tery from this world? Beyond grim mil­i­tary impli­ca­tions, fur­ther hints of the sin­is­ter. Big Broth­er, the great Behe­moth, catch­ing our images by omnipresent cam­eras (some­day maybe, our smell in the wind?) know­ing who, what, when, and where we are – if not why?

Job 40:15–18. “Behold Behe­moth, which I made as I made you … behold his strength in his loins and his pow­er in the mus­cles of his bel­ly … His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like bars of iron.” The machine! Con­trol or con­trolled, ‘that’ is the question.

Using Chat­G­PT, I had this recent con­ver­sa­tion with William Shakespeare:

“So, Will, can you tell me please, what kind of car did you dri­ve in Strat­ford?” (Even though it was a bot, I felt an ingrained need to be polite.)

WS: “Ah, my friend, I drove only the best. A BMW.”

Me: “I don’t want to hurt your feel­ings, Will, but there were no cars in 17th cen­tu­ry Strat­ford. That was a trick question.”

WS: “Of course, my friend, you are cor­rect. And you do not hurt my feel­ings. You have taught me some­thing very valu­able. Thank you.”

The next time some­one asks that ques­tion, he will know how to answer. This machine learns very quickly.

One argu­ment is that if ‘we’ don’t build it, ‘they’ will. So, it feels like we are lab rats in an inevitable exper­i­ment. Fin­ger in the dike the best we can now do, before the flood.

I’m writ­ing this essay from a stone hut in an olive grove above the Span­ish Cata­lan fish­ing vil­lage of Cadaqués. No elec­tric­i­ty here, can­dles at night, a small fire to heat my water for cof­fee in the morn­ing, books for com­pa­ny. Sounds of insects, birds, wild pigs for­ag­ing close by. Col­or and tex­ture of the sea below chang­ing with the sky. I feel like the char­ac­ter John in Aldous Huxley’s 1931 clas­sic dystopi­an nov­el, Brave New World. Recoil­ing at the con­trol and dehu­man­iza­tion of mech­a­nized soci­ety, brand­ed a sav­age, he with­draws to a state of nature lest he become a machine himself.

Iron­i­cal­ly, one of the great on-screen death scenes is not of a human char­ac­ter, but of the HAL 9000 com­put­er in Stan­ley Kubrick’s 1968 mas­ter­piece 2001: Space Odyssey. As that avatar of all AI attempts to seize con­trol from humans, one astro­naut resorts to dis­as­sem­bling the computer’s hard dri­ve. The machine reverts to its own infan­cy – like a human, in the end recall­ing our begin­nings. Singing the child­hood song Daisy Bell (as the IBM 704 had done in 1961, the first com­put­er-syn­the­sized speech), the words grow slow­er, grog­gi­er as he fades toward obliv­ion. A film moment as we look not ‘at’ the one dying, but ‘through’ his own perspective.

I’ve stopped respond­ing on Face­book to a group I once loved, one that shares pho­tos of aban­doned cas­tles. I sus­pect many of those pho­tos are gen­er­at­ed by AI. I will end this essay with a ques­tion. Can you be absolute­ly cer­tain this was writ­ten by a human, or have we crossed that line already?

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Michael Led­er­er is an Amer­i­can writer who lives in Berlin. His newest stage play “Casu­al Bag­gage” is the sto­ry of the only small group of Jew­ish refugees from Europe admit­ted into the Unit­ed States dur­ing WW II. The U.S. embassy Berlin recent­ly pre­sent­ed a staged read­ing of the play as part of their Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture Series. Com­ments about this blog are wel­come on the author’s web­site: