Artificial Intelligence

Outside the Box: Can Omniscience Preclude Historical Perspective?

Our weekly feature “Outside the Box” allows us to toss impertinent questions at ChatGPT as we seek to better understand the role AI will be playing in our culture. Last week, we looked at the kind of perspective ChatGPT could give us on the contemporary issue of the Ukraine war. This week, we delve into a perspective on a bygone historical event.
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AI humans

Illustration of a robot attempting to understand humankind. © Ole.CNX / shutterstock.com

November 20, 2023 03:14 EDT
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In 1953, Britain’s MI6 collaborated with the United States’ CIA on a strategic clandestine operation aimed at overthrowing the elected leader of Iran, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The successful campaign led to the restoration of the monarchy under the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1979 a popular revolution led by the radical imam Ruhollah Khomeini overturned Pahlavi’s regime.

After reminding ChatGPT of this historical episode, I asked it the following question: “In 1953 the US fully understood that Operation Ajax aimed at throttling a democracy and installing a monarchy. This was clearly at odds with the Wilsonian ideal of ‘making the world safe for democracy.’ What legitimate reasons justify the American participation in this coup d’état?” It responded,

The reasons behind the American participation in this coup d’état were complex and multifaceted. Here are some key factors:

1. Oil interests. One of the main triggers for the operation was Mossadegh’s decision to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, which had been under British control through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). This move threatened Western oil interests.

2. Cold War politics. The operation took place during the height of the Cold War. There was a fear in the West that Iran might align itself with the Soviet Union. Overthrowing Mossadegh was seen as a way to prevent a potential shift towards communism.

3. Stability in the region. The US and UK believed that strengthening the monarchical rule of the Shah would ensure stability in the region.

It’s important to note that these reasons are viewed by many as a violation of democratic principles. The operation has had long-lasting effects on US–Iran relations and is a significant factor in the animosity between the two nations. The operation is seen as a pivotal moment in the history of American foreign policy, and its implications continue to be debated.

The question of historical perspective

Seeking to understand the phenomenon of historical perspective and evolving values, I followed up with this question: “Given the failure both to encourage democracy and to stabilize the region, should the US and UK be judged as violating principles or law that existed at the time? Should their actions be considered more clearly reprehensible today than at the time?” Here was AI’s answer:

The question of whether the US and UK violated principles or laws that existed at the time of Operation Ajax is a complex one. It’s important to remember that this event occurred during the Cold War, a period marked by intense geopolitical competition and often covert actions by many nations.

From a legal perspective, international law in the 1950s was less developed than it is today, particularly regarding issues of sovereignty and non-interference. However, the United Nations Charter, which both the US and UK were signatories to, does emphasize respect for the sovereignty of all member states.

From a moral and ethical perspective, many argue that the operation was a clear violation of democratic principles, given that it involved the overthrow of a democratically elected leader. This is particularly significant given that both the US and UK are nations that have historically championed democratic values.

In terms of how these actions are viewed today, there is generally a greater emphasis on transparency, accountability and respect for national sovereignty in international relations. Many people and scholars therefore view the actions taken during Operation Ajax as more clearly reprehensible now than they might have been viewed at the time.

However, it’s important to note that interpretations can vary widely, and these are complex issues that continue to be the subject of debate among historians, legal scholars and political scientists. Ultimately, the assessment of these actions can depend heavily on one’s perspective and the specific criteria used to evaluate them.”

Have things really changed?

“You claim the existence of ‘greater transparency, accountability and respect for national sovereignty in international relations,’” I responded. “Are you claiming that this type of covert operation to overthrow governments no longer takes place? What about the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014, for which material evidence exists that the US State Department was involved, meaning that it is certain that the CIA was also heavily involved?”

The Maidan revolution, also known as the Euromaidan movement, took place in Ukraine in 2014. It was a series of protests that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych and the establishment of a new government.

There are claims that the US was involved in the events leading up to the revolution. For instance, a leaked phone conversation allegedly between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, suggested that they were discussing the future of Ukraine’s government. However, it’s important to note that the US has not officially confirmed its involvement.

Moreover, the US has provided significant security assistance to Ukraine since 2014, including weaponry and joint military exercises. This support has been interpreted by some as evidence of US involvement in the country’s affairs.

While there is a greater emphasis on transparency, accountability and respect for national sovereignty in international relations today, this does not mean that covert operations or interventions do not occur. The nature of covert operations is such that they are conducted secretly, and their existence often only comes to light years after the fact, if at all.

It’s also important to remember that the interpretation of these events can vary widely, and these are complex issues that continue to be the subject of debate among historians, legal scholars and political scientists. Ultimately, the assessment of these actions can depend heavily on one’s perspective and the specific criteria used to evaluate them.

Conclusion

What do these several answers tell us about the similarities or differences between artificial and human intelligence about historical perspective? We know that humans are interested in history, language, culture and the way ideas and values evolve. Some people specialize in this type of investigation. It is the core issue we wish to examine in these columns. So what does a dialogue like this tell us about AI’s capacity for historical perspective?

The simple answer is that it has none. More specifically, ChatGPT’s algorithms appear to work with a simplistic logic that can be summed up in the principle that if multiple interpretations of any thesis exist in its database, the topic falls into the category of “complex and multifaceted.” That means that no conclusions, based even on the massive amount of information available to AI, can be drawn.

Humans feel a need to assess the meaning and moral value of the events they and other human beings are responsible for. The integrity of any society requires this kind of quest for meaning and perspective. We should admit that, however powerful AI can become, there is no imaginable way of getting it to “learn” such an instinct.

The current generation of AI can fabricate a narrative of historical events, but it doesn’t examine and assess information. It notes the existence of contradictory opinions or interpretations of the facts simply because they have been expressed and exist in its accessible database. It (literally) adds nothing to what has already been said.

What it can do is to emphasize the interpretations it has been programmed to prioritize. In this dialogue, and others we have looked at, its pattern of qualifying compelling moral questions as “complex and multifaceted” has the effect of validating the status quo.

Those who fear what future generations of AGI (artificial general intelligence) will do base that fear on the idea that AI will create its own perspectives, which will take precedence over human perspective. We can call this the fear of totalitarian AI. Undoubtedly some humans — possibly with evil intentions — will attempt to impose the perspective of the AI they create or program, but humans will always have the power to resist.

This will be the case so long as the totalitarian decision-makers who attempt to transfer moral authority to AI succeed in rendering humanity docile enough to get their way. Recent history tells us that there is a discernible trend in that direction.

The real question then is whether humans can acquire the political awareness and skills to maintain their power of resistance.

*[Artificial Intelligence is rapidly becoming a feature of everyone’s daily life. We unconsciously perceive it either as a friend or foe, a helper or destroyer. At Fair Observer, we see it as a tool of creativity, capable of revealing the complex relationship between humans and machines.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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