Aug 31, 2023
“We developed AI to simplify the process, and expand the potential of thinking. We did not set out to dictate the content of thought itself…”
On Friday, September 1, Aletheia Today Magazine will be releasing our Fall Issue dedicated exclusively to AI – its philosophical, theological, cultural, and spiritual implications. In researching material for this issue, I came across something terrifying online (quelle surprise!):
“Prompt engineering involves more than just typing in a query. It's about understanding the AI's underlying logic…and sometimes even 'thinking like the AI'… (For example) Generate five innovative product ideas for the eco-friendly industry focusing on renewable energy."
Why frightening? First, as human beings, we like to think that we create technology to serve our purposes; we bristle at the idea that it is technology that creates us. But over the past 10,000 years or so, it has become increasingly obvious that we are products of our own technique.
According to Genesis, God created the world in 6 or 7 ‘days’ (or epochs); technology is creating us in a similar succession of stages. The first transformation occurred with the rise of spoken language. Originally invented to help us accomplish our projects, language has increasingly worked to determine the nature and scope of those projects.
Imagine a Stone Age father lecturing his teenage son: “If you can’t say it, you can’t think it, and if you can’t think it, you can’t do it.”
Perhaps surprisingly, our Stone Agers were not entirely unaware of their dilemma. The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel is an early, if somewhat confused, attempt to showcase the relationship between speech and act. Minimally, the story makes it clear that ‘saying and doing’ (language and production) are intimately related.
Next came the invention of writing. It only happened once in human history, but like Pokémon, Kid Rock, and Pet Rock, it caught on. Written communication greatly expanded the scope of enterprise…but at the same time it further limited the scope of that enterprise.
Imagine a Bronze Age mother lecturing her teenage daughter: “If you can’t write it, you can’t say it, and if you can’t say it, you can’t think it, and if you can’t think it, you can’t do it.” Now technology is about what we can’t do rather than what we can.
Our modern Indo-European (IE) languages are semantic minefields seeded over-generously with nouns (subjects & objects) and active voice verbs. If your project doesn’t fit comfortably within this syntactical framework, you’re S.O.L.
That’s not a problem for you? Perhaps that is the problem! Have you lost the ability (or inclination) to conceive of a project outside the limits imposed by IE syntax?
Writing kept us busy for several millennia. I mean come on, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Goethe! What more could anyone want? Then came the next great tectonic shift – the Industrial Revolution (IR).
The technique involved in large-scale manufacture, and its impact on human life, has been identified by countless individuals and celebrated (or castigated) in various media. To cite just a few examples: Prudhomme, Marx, Legere, Chaplin, Brazil, McLuhan and Ellul. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, “Today, we measure out our lives with coffee spoons.”
Following IR…DR, the Digital Revolution. Consider the massive change in communication that has occurred since ‘I’ invented the internet. E-mail, Text, Excel, PowerPoint have all changed the way we express our thoughts…and therefore how and what we think.
Begin with the obliteration of orthography (spelling) and grammar, the atrophy of sentence structure, the disappearance of complex verb forms, and, of course, the rise of internet slang and emojis. We’ve witnessed the reduction of mathematics to spread sheeting and rhetoric to bullet points.
When PowerPoint first came out, I was resistant. I didn’t like the oversimplification and non-sequiturs I noticed in others’ work products. I wouldn’t use it…until I couldn’t not use it. Now, of course, I use it every day. “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”
Now we appear to be riding on the first swell of another technological tidal wave: first language, writing, manufacture, computerization, and now…(drum roll please) Artificial Intelligence. All of which brings us back to what I found so terrifying: “…thinking like the AI.”
We developed AI to simplify the process, and expand the potential, of thinking. We did not set out to dictate the content of thought itself…but that may be exactly what we’re doing…which leads me to my second concern:
“Generate five innovative product ideas.” Talk about begging the question. Can AI truly innovate? That may be the dominant intellectual question of our time; but according to the quote at the beginning of this article, it’s already a settled matter of fact: AI can innovate!
If so, we need to consider our Bots conscious…and therefore entitled to certain civil rights; if not, we need to consider how far we’ve dumbed-down our understanding of innovation. Implicit in ‘in/nova/tion’ is ‘novum’, new.
Rearranging deck chairs is not new, but I don’t doubt that AI can do it brilliantly. That’s not the same thing as inventing a new, iceberg-proof hull. On the other hand, where do we draw the line? When does mere novelty become true innovation? Is there any fundamental difference?
What a time to be alive! We are at the ‘question forming’ stage of a new anthropological era. Should aquatic organisms colonize dry land? The Iron Age is history; welcome to the Age of Bots. I can’t wait to see where we go from here!