We don’t know. That’s the truth. At the very bottom, the only truth that counts is this: no one knows what artificial intelligence will bring. No one knows what positives and negatives are coming. The real story of AI? We. Just. Don’t. Know. That’s the premise of this article. Anyone who says otherwise right now, is full of horse-dong. Thankfully, we do know one thing. We know a little something about who is building it: ourselves. So, strap yourselves in really tight, and let’s figure out what our next moves should really be. And it all begins with our own history, two things in particular. One: our creativity stemming from emotions. And two: our relationship with tools. Or better still, our ‘automata’. So, what's the story of AI? Here goes nothing…
The real start of civilization
We often credit the harnessing of fire and the invention of the axe as the two things that set us on our evolution to Homo Sapiens, the ‘thinking ape’. But that’s not the entire story. There is a step before that which led to those two developments: our creative ability to connect the dots. You see, countless of other animals have also witnessed the effect of a brimstone giving off a spark that starts a fire. But they didn’t connect the dots. And although some animal species have figured out how to use a stone to break a particularly hard fruit, they didn’t evolve like us into a species that has now created artificial intelligence. We, however, did. How?
Our ability that has sparked it all is this: creativity. And creativity is nothing more than connecting dots between two (or more) data-points. Every single human being has that ability (although one could argue, maybe some of us should use it a bit more often…). And I must add, an AI does too. It simply connects the dots. Yet, there is a remarkable difference in the way that an AI does this, and the way we humans do it. Our creativity stems from one single source: our emotions. Or rather, our ability to communicate emotions. It stems from the fact that we are social animals. And that ability is a pure and utter survival mechanism.
Imagine two ape-like creatures. One of them accidentally drops a brimstone on a rock. A spark appears. The other then communicates the emotion ‘surprise’. The eyes light up in the emotion ‘amazement’: a signal that something is up to ape number one. Ape number one looks up with the emotion ‘stupidity’, signaling to ape number two that he doesn’t understand. Ape number two reacts with the emotion ‘disbelief’, starts jumping wildly, flaying her arms up and down, signaling the emotion ‘how could you be so stupid as not to see what just happened!’. Ape number one slumps his body, grunts a few apologies, and looks at ape number two with eyes that communicate ‘curiosity’, as to say: please explain it to me. Ape number two huffs and puffs the emotion ‘irritation’, frowning at ape number one, slamming her hand on her head a few times… but then — crucially — decides to change her emotion. She waves one arm to say ‘come over here’, walks to the brimstone and picks it up. Both apes are now sitting next to each other, their body stances mimicking one another and communicating: ‘we’re in this discovery together’. Social animals mirroring emotional behavior, that creates social common ground, so they can exchange new survival techniques. Number two picks up the brimstone… looks into the eyes of number one saying ‘and now watch what happens’… and drops the brimstone again. The spark appears. And lights a leaf on fire. They look at each other, mirror their surprise by laughing, and then start to dance wildly with joy. Number one then looks two in the eyes, with small tears forming, signalling his love for her. She answers with the same look. But then numéro uno notices the fire is spreading to the other leafs, and stomps on them in ‘fear’ to stop the fire from spreading further. They both sigh with the emotion ‘relief’. They smile at each other, pick up the brimstone, some leafs and dry wood. They’ve just become better survivors, ready to spread their new-found fire lesson in their combined DNA, as they go their marry way into a dry cave to make wild love by the fire.
Welcome to the human race. The animal that communicates survival techniques through their emotions.
Fast forward through the generations of their descendants. Human beings have now created new forms of communication. Visual drawings on cave walls that will lay the groundwork for smaller drawings, that will become written letters and numbers but also branch out to paintings from Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh. More sophisticated grunts that lay the groundwork for spoken language, that with different intonations even became song. Bodily movements that convey our emotional states that will evolve into Swan Lake but also street-dance. Eye and facial movements that branched out into countless subtle little feelings.
We communicated and communicated and communicated our findings again and again and again with expression after expression after expression.
And because of that exchange, fire evolved into combustion engines. That axe became a hammer became a screwdriver became a computer chip which then allowed us to build automatic machines that compile the mobile phone you are holding in your hand right now. Aqueducts. Steam engines. Windmills. Rocket ships. All because we connected the dots. All because we observed and imagined. And grunted it to each other.
And because we have build all those tools that made us survive so much better, we gave them magical properties, we started to ‘feel’ for them because they couldn’t feel for themselves, that’s how happy we are with our tools. From the shadows in Plato’s cave to Pinocchio to IRobot by Asimov, we started thinking about the nature of ‘things’ and ‘tools’ because if they help us so much, do they not possess a soul of their own? Even Buddhism answers that question into the affirmative, laying the groundwork for Star Trek’s most remarkable character: Data, an android that has only one wish: to become human. And becoming human means only one thing: to feel.
Enter the automata
In history, when we go through big revolutions of our tools, we have the tendency to look at life as something we can automate. Something we can control. And no one has felt that error more than 17th century mathematician René Descartes when he went to a congress to discuss the latest findings in his field. Not long before that inventions like the compass and the clock were made. And in that same time period, because of the printing press breaking the hold of the Catholic Church on society, people were finally making headway in human biology as well, discovering that bodily functions seem to be automatic.
Kind of like clockwork.
Descartes came home from that conference with a sombre thought: if our bodies are like clockwork, if they are so automatic in their nature, what am I then? Am I just some sort of automata? Do I even posses a mind of my own or is it all predetermined by my clockwork-like biology? And if not, do I even posses a soul? Or am I just one of Plato’s shadows? Are my thoughts even my own? Do I even exist? Or is everything just an illusion?
He fell into a deep depression, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat for weeks… until he started to dangle on the brink of death itself. And then, in his most dire moment, he made a decision: ‘I’ve got to let this go, before I die’. And the moment he let it go — the moment he let loose of the control — the thoughts did no longer control him. He ate. He slept. The penny dropped: I may not control biology… but I control my mind. I choose not to think about this anymore.
I think. And I make a conscious, mindful decision. Between two data points. 0 or 1. The blue or the red pill. The brimstone and the spark. Meaning I can be more than the sum of my clockwork parts. Meaning there is something more… an ‘I’ that ‘is’. It was the ultimate irony. In an age when the tools controlled our thoughts, it was the mathematician that showed us that we still had agency over our own thoughts.
Nowadays we attribute our thoughts and our creative ability to connect dots and choose our own fates to a tiny little discovery we’ve made that is fueling the latest technological developments: quantum mechanics. Yes, we live in a universe with all those clockwork-like rules. But at the bottom of that live these quantum-stuffy-thingies that aren’t predetermined yet. That seem to make choices of their own concerning their negative or positive spins. They choose their own 1’s and 0’s. And even have the audacity to change them whenever they so goddamn feel like it.
Like Descartes did.
Yet, we also live in a similar age as Descartes. An age in which we’ve again elevated our tools to mythical levels. We're we choose to not choose our own fate but attribute all progress to technology alone. We thought the Internet would be the best thing that ever happened to us. And in many ways it is. You’re reading this because of it (and arguably, the printing press too…). And if you’re bored by this article you can choose to text your family. Or watch cat-videos. But the Internet has also given us an explosion of the most horrid crimes one can imagine. Fake news that leads to death and destruction. The parallel rise of burnout worldwide. And if you don’t like cats… well, cat-video’s.
Just recently we banged up NFT’s, who failed spectacularly and predictably. We trumpeted social media, but they stole our privacy and now teach our children not to pay attention to it. We elevated crypto, but got scammed into the trillions, while our gree continuews. We masturbated on the Metaverse, only to discover that video games already existed.
We’re doing it again. Elevating our tools. Our automata. Decrying revolution through technology. Will now be different? Were all those previous tech-loving-episodes in the entire history of the human race designed so that now when the real-deal automata of artificial intelligence is hanging in the air, we can finally make the right decisions? Were all our past mistakes meant to lead up to this point, this moment in time for us to finally get it right?
Get some extra copyrights going maybe? Before it’s too late and all our musicians and visual artists and writers are doomed? Protect our images online maybe... before someone takes your daughters image into a porn video through AI and show it to the class room? Protect our voices before we start spreading more audio cow-manure? Algorithms that spread hate and suffering and racism?
And what is true progress? Is that technology? Such as AI? Internet? Social Media? Or is progress an emotional thing? Like women having the right to vote? The presumed-innocence clause in our law books? Copyrights on our original thoughts and works and creative abilities? The ending of apartheid? Democracy?
Will we have learned enough about ourselves this time round? Use our new-found hammer for good this time? Fighting climate change? Water shortages? Discover planets? Or make more cat-video’s?
Ultimately the answer is we don’t know. But if you’ve made it through this article without being distracted by cat-video-generating algorithms, I say that’s progress.
Because now, you’ve remembered a couple of things about the human species. Such as how we’ve evolved rational thinking through our emotions... and not the other way around, like the AI does it. And you’ve learned that all those newfound AI experts are full of bull-crap. Just like those NFT experts. Metaverse experts. Social media experts. And crypto experts.
They. Just. Don’t. Know.
But at the very least, the people who are really building our AI’s admit that they don’t know either. They may be building our doom or our savior. Or something in between. But at least they’re being honest about it. At least they don’t have the illusion of control. Even if they try to maintain it.
And you? You now know one thing that may alleviate at least some of your fears. You’ve now remembered you have a choice. A choice to stand up against greedy Silicon Valley overlords and force their hand in deciding to whether we build the T-1000 or the positronic brain of Mr Data.
A choice, just like Descartes had.
Now go use it to watch cat-video’s. I know you want to.
You have agency.
Love, as always,
Check out my book The Whole Story - The Ultimate Guide to Storytelling.
(this article was also published on Medium)