In recent months, for the first time, there has been a widespread debate about the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence (AI). This is a very urgent, if very late, arrival at the great question of our time. The prerequisite for participating in the public debate, however, seems to be the acceptance of the view of AI as a kind of redemptive force.
I remember living in Russia in the 1990s and having a friend who was an engineer. He told me about a fellow student who was a real genius. This was during the Soviet era, and during the final exam, students had to go up to the exam committee one by one and draw a random question to answer. The exceptionally gifted student was asked: Why did the Challenger crash? He brilliantly explained, from beginning to end, all the technical reasons why the American rocket broke up just 73 seconds after launch.
To his surprise, the gifted student fails the exam. The committee takes him to task for failing to mention the most important explanation: Challenger was a capitalist rocket. It had no choice but to crash.
This example is taken from a totalitarian context, but even in today’s “liberal democracies” there are certain propaganda phrases that you must remember to recite if you want to participate in public life.
This is especially true of the debate about artificial intelligence (AI). You can sit on SVT in prime time and warn about the existential risks, but only on condition that in the next breath you sing the praises of AI and talk about all the amazing things AI will do for humanity – cure cancer and all serious diseases, overcome hunger and injustice, solve environmental problems, etc.
In the Soviet Union, the ideology was communism. In our time, it is technology that has taken on an almost religious status, with artificial intelligence playing the role of God Almighty.
Like the paradise promised by religions, the evangelists of artificial intelligence lure us into a future utopia. In the current debate, no one seems to dare ask the AI lobby for evidence. How long should something with such a poor track record be allowed to live on utopian promises that may never be fulfilled?
We can think of heroin as a comparison. The drug is associated with misery and suffering. Abused lives, ruined health, overdoses. Heroin is banned in almost every country in the world.
But the addiction caused by heroin is a piss in Mississippi compared to the addiction caused by AI. It’s almost comical to ride public transportation and see virtually every person – adult and child – hypnotized and staring into a rectangle. But the laughter gets stuck in your throat because you are probably doing the same thing. The collective aspect is probably why the subject is hardly ever discussed. The abuse has become normalized and there are no adults in the room to speak up. But as Erich Fromm pointed out, insanity does not become less insane just because it is shared by millions of people.
Imagine if I had a crystal ball vision of the future when I was growing up in the 1970s and I saw this mass hypnosis. I probably would have thought it was bad science fiction, where humanity had been taken over by some alien force.
So other than being creepily addictive, what is the track record of AI?
AI has given the world’s authoritarian rulers the ability to monitor society’s citizens with a technology that not even Big Brother in the futuristic novel 1984 could have dreamed of.
AI has enabled the grotesquely rich to become even more grotesquely rich through increasingly effective manipulation of the world’s financial system. Aladdin, the name of a very advanced AI system, generates more and more of the profits of the world’s largest fund giant, BlackRock.
AI has contributed greatly to the dramatic increase in mental health and suicide rates among young people. We can conclude that neither compulsive gaming nor the atomization and pseudo-socializing of social media have made our children and young people happier. Girls used to dream of looking like a movie star. Today, they dream of looking like their own AI-manipulated Instagram profile picture.
As we know, AI is also making more and more people redundant. If in the past workers were needed to run the factories – which at least gave them some leverage over the capitalists – today’s proletariat is completely negligible the moment AI can do the job cheaper. (Someone should tell the Swedish prime minister about this. Recently, Ulf Kristersson said it would be wrong to slow down the development of AI “because it would endanger jobs”).
But the problem goes deeper than the technology itself. In Folkets Radio’s program on mind control, published in the fall of 2021, I interviewed the historian of ideas Per Johansson, who argued that the discussion about AI taking over our jobs is somewhat misguided.
“The only reason artificial intelligence can take over our jobs”, he said, “is because they are already artificially intelligent”.
Ever since the industrial revolution, working life has been characterized by efficiency and rationalization. Workplaces are designed according to industrial organization models, and the trend is increasingly towards automation. As one exasperated doctor said to me after the major reorganization of the Karolinska University Hospital: “The robots are ordered, but the delivery is delayed, so in the meantime I have to work here at their mercy”.
Even schools are producing cogs in a machine. There is hardly any creativity left. The one-sided focus on the left brain is extreme.
What’s the point, one might ask, of stressing children out in the morning when they’re at their most comfortable, of pestering them with tests and homework, only to turn them into underperforming calculators and deficient knowledge banks, proving no match for AI.
What if instead we accepted that what machines can already do better than we can is not what we should be forcing our children to learn? In the best of worlds, AI could be a wake-up call, reminding us of who we really are. We could instead focus on developing and perfecting the qualities that make us uniquely human and alive: relationships, poetry, song, art, creativity, humor, small-scaledness, and more.
The origins of the debate in recent months are a high-profile call to pause the development of powerful AI systems, followed by an open letter signed by the world’s leading AI dignitaries saying that we should consider AI an existential threat to humanity, just like nuclear weapons.
My brother, Max Tegmark, who initiated the petition, has been interviewed frequently in the media. He tries to make us realize what many people probably want to avoid: that we are already in real trouble, and that it can happen unimaginably fast from the current state of AI learning. As self-learning systems become more advanced, they can develop and rewrite their own software, which writes the next software, which writes the next software, which writes the next software, and so on.
In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Max warns that humanity is building an “alien mind” much more powerful than our own, with which we will have to share the planet.
Max and I were talking recently about how we have strangely come to the same fateful question – although we have approached it from very different directions and with very different conceptual frameworks.
Many might spontaneously think that the threat of AI is a recent phenomenon. While it is true that technological developments have enabled the construction of this Frankenstein’s monster, this is only part of the truth. AI technology is, one might say, the interface that the ‘monster’ uses to more effectively take control of us humans. “The ‘monster’ itself, however, is not new. Ancient Gnostic texts warn of a soulless but powerful intelligence that can infiltrate human thought and lead us to destruction. In my book, The War on Life, to be published in August, you can read more about this force, which the Gnostics called the Archontic.
What is striking about the Gnostic texts is that thousands of years ago there was a Coptic word – Hal – for virtual reality. If the word sounds familiar, it’s because film director Stanley Kubrick chose it as the name of the computer that tried to hijack the astronauts’ spaceship in his famous film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Gnostics described the archontic force as a kind of pseudo-god, driven by blind envy of the animated planet Earth. It lacks the divine intelligence that pervades life and nature, which it can only imitate. However, it is extremely good at this.
However, the virtual copies and simulations will always lack the mystical component which characterizes life.
The Gnostics used the term antimimon to describe the modus operandi of the alien intelligence, referring to the fact that the copies have the opposite purpose of the living original. If we apply the Gnostic warnings to our time, it means that anything inserted into AI systems becomes dead and soulless, that AI and “smart” technologies can never evolve in harmony with life flourishing on its own terms.
A knee-jerk reaction, of course, is to dismiss all such things as metaphysical nonsense. But there are good reasons not to be so quick to dismiss the Gnostic warnings of the past. For one thing, they provide an understanding that the tendency to alienate people from nature is not new. For another, they can help us see where the real dividing line lies, beyond the ideological and political lines along which people are otherwise divided.
One who illustrated this divide was the film director John Carpenter in his 1987 masterpiece They Live, which depicts the neoliberal Reagan era as a catastrophic alien invasion. In the film, America is ruled by aliens disguised as members of the economic and professional elite. To them, Earth is just another resource to be plundered, it is their “third world”.
Some humans have been recruited as alien companions. They are rewarded for their cooperation with fancy jobs, money and consumer goods. They are invited to lavish banquets where aliens dressed as business executives explain, “The profits have been significant, both for us and for you – the human power elite”.
There are pros and cons to such an approach to the AI debate. You can easily come across as alarmist, and you will certainly not be invited to SVT’s morning show. At the same time, it can be the wake-up call that many people need to hear that there is indeed a full-scale war against life, that an alien intelligence is taking control of the planet and us humans, and that we need to choose sides.
Let’s go back to the argument of the historian of ideas Per Johansson that the concrete AI takeover was usually preceded by an AI adaptation of the activity in question, i.e. standardization, conformity and dehumanization. So what’s next in the pipeline?
We are now seeing this on a large scale in the agricultural sector. With the UN’s powerful sustainability agenda as its ideological base, the world’s agro-industrial complex is rapidly implementing a systemic shift to high-tech, highly manipulated agriculture that can be managed by robots via algorithms.
Moreover, it is no longer just the components of industrial operations that are considered production units, but also life itself, which is reduced to a bundle of specific functions. There was (fortunately) some outrage when it became known that Svenska Vårdguiden had advised against using the term “woman” in health care on its website. By referring instead to “the person who will give birth”, “uterus carrier” or “menstruator”, it would avoid offending transgender people who identify as women.
It has also been suggested that bees may need to be replaced by artificial pollinators.
It is a species completely lost in a world of environmental toxins and genetically engineered mono-landscapes, its navigational abilities disrupted by electromagnetic frequencies.
AI is rapidly taking control of life on Earth, incorporating and eventually assimilating it into its lifeless systems. Perhaps it is therefore logical to eliminate concepts from language and reduce what AI can never achieve to a set of practical functions, such as women giving birth or the diversity of species intertwining in nature.
It should not be difficult to see that the whole project is, at its core, a fraud. Even in this artificially influenced language there is a kind of alienation from the living, from the complex web of life that is nature. The bee is much more than a pollinator. It lives and interacts with other species, and when it dies, it returns its body to the ecosystem and the ongoing cycle. In nature there is no stagnation and no waste, because there is nothing superfluous and nothing that can be replaced.
AI is completely incapable of understanding the enormous complexity of nature. Physics professor Ulf Danielsson writes that even the most advanced AI systems will not be able to make reliable weather forecasts for much longer than is currently possible. Ulf Danielsson: Drop the humanization of technology and see AI for what it is. AI and so-called super intelligence is a pretty useless tool when it comes to rainforests and oceans – and human societies for that matter – if the purpose is anything other than manipulation, control and exploitation.
As for the promise that AI will cure our diseases, perhaps we should ask ourselves why we have all these diseases in the first place. Could they be largely due to unhealthy lifestyles, processed and modified foods, meaningless, monotonous chores, and lack of real human interaction? If play and imagination could flourish again in the land of childhood, what reduction would we see in mental health problems among young people?
How about rejecting any AI-centered theology of technological salvation and instead focusing on a global digital detox campaign to break the severe addiction?
This article was previously published on Folkets Radio.