Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Singular Creatures: Robots, Rights, and the Politics of Posthumanism.
Will history recall the Great ChatGPT Panic of late 2022, when wordsmiths and educators quaked over a text-generating algorithm? Will journalism and scholarship be irrevocably damaged by these seismic shifts? Will students, just now hearing about this new cheating technology from their teachers, rush to acquire false credentials based on open-access AI superpowers?
The answer, to all these questions, is no. As was the case with GPT-3, the last AI neural network to threaten Shakespeare and the human imagination, the puckish columns and fake-out bot interviews at least partly generated by ChatGPT will eventually be forgotten. And now that a rival Google chatbot, Bard, has “face-planted” (according to The New York Times) after it replied with a factual error during a demo, maybe we can move on from this cultural-anxiety cycle – and stop being so precious about our “humanity.”
Easy facility with standard language is something that both newspaper columns and college term papers prize, for maybe unstable and ultimately bad reasons; the world could probably use fewer of both, however generated. But Bard’s gaffe aside, such writings have proven to be eminently imitable by an expanding AI marketplace, even though machine-generated texts remind me of those academic papers that are replies to objections to claims made in mitigation of arguments previously hedged by caveats that are still subject to further scrutiny outside the scope of this paper. ChatGPT can only offer what Ted Chiang called “a blurry JPEG of all the text on the web.”
Still, the fear of being displaced by machines is a long-standing, almost necessary part of human nature. This specific version of displacement, which forces us to compare ourselves against powerful processing forces, only adds insult to injury. We humans are chagrined at being so easily mimicked.
This often prompts what purport to be searching questions about the definition of “human nature,” and that’s what drove much of the sad-dad solemnizing during the recent ChatGPT panic. Po-faced writers at venerable periodicals tutored us about the ineffable value of the humanities. Wizened professors intoned about the spiritual benefits of liberal education being instantly obliterated by off-loading your essay deadlines. Yay for humans! (For some reason, we heard very little about the other parts of being human: the depredations, for instance, of insult-bombing, meanness and social-media rage.)
The word “human,” like the word “natural,” is one without reliable extension: It means what we want it to mean, usually in favour of some quiet agenda or specific vision. And so to say that artificial intelligence that can write (or paint, or compose) lacks humanity is entirely tautological; it is a ridiculous stone to throw from inside our glass houses. “There’s no élan,” a UNC Chapel Hill professor judged of ChatGPT submissions. I just graded 45 midterm essays pretty reliably authored by humans, and I can tell you that all but three of them lacked élan, too.
So the public rhetoric about AI is, as is so often the case, turning on the wrong pivots. We’ve busied ourselves trying to defend humankind’s superiority over machines, even though it’s a mug’s game: You can win only for losing. Moreover, it’s the wrong play, even if it works to reassure in the short term. Why? Because homo sapiens sapiens is already far more – and, alas, far less – than any account of human nature, however buoyant or delusional.
When I was an undergraduate student decades ago, a slim 1974 paperback sat on just about every brick-and-board bookcase in the rooming houses near the university campus where I now teach. It was called Seven Theories of Human Nature, edited by the scholar Leslie Stevenson, and its chosen theories matched with then-popular philosophy courses on the subject. The latter are long gone, largely replaced by studies of performative identity, social construction and multiple subject positions – all to the good, if you ask me.
The icons whose theories Mr. Stevenson selected were instructive, however – Christianity, Sigmund Freud, Konrad Lorenz, Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, B.F. Skinner and Plato are highlighted on the cover – and the book is a worthy time capsule. Dr. Lorenz, an ethologist who specialized in the fine points of instinctive behaviour, likely stands out today as the odd one of the bunch. Not often mentioned by name these days, he was nevertheless an éminence grise of popular psychology and biological determinism.
And we should focus on biology, since our attitude to non-human animals is really the key to understanding how we move forward with other non-human life forms, from elephants, squids and primates to coral reefs, forests and, potentially, sentient AIs. (Again, don’t panic: ChatGPT is still far from sentient, let alone purposive or malicious.)
The only reliable interpretation of “human” lies in basic biology, an inherently limited category. The problem is that our mania for self-indulgent theorizing drives humans toward arrogance or even cavalier anthropocene supremacy about their biology. Freud, Marx, Skinner and the rest – even Sartre, for all his hard-won existential wisdom – are just favouring their own essentialist nepo brain-babies. A thousand flowers may bloom when it comes to theories of human nature, and yet we would be no closer to framing its essence in some bounded manner. Devastating viruses, both intellectual and physical, will still make their way in.
In fact, viruses have much to teach us as we consider the new collaborative futures and market shakedowns emerging in this era of posthumanism, where the integration of carbon and silicon, hardware and software will be ever more seamless. Maybe you know those television ads for a shingles vaccine driven by the tagline that “the virus doesn’t care.” Having suffered shingles, I can affirm this bleak verdict: Biology doesn’t give a toss for you and your entitled human uniqueness. It has no regard for your social-media profile and carefully cultivated individuality, your dearly held fashion sense or personal philosophy. You may insist on your humanity, but to a virus, you’re just a handy host for its own blind survival project.
Impressive AI is similar, even though we created it and, for now, can at least try to control it – good luck with that, though! The greatest lesson to be drawn from our anxiety about all new life forms is actually an old truth. We have always been posthuman, striving and failing to understand our status as an indifferent universe becoming conscious of itself.
Humility, and humour, will light the way here. But much as we might prefer otherwise, humans always aren’t so great at all that.