René Descartes famously wrote in Latin, “cogito, ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am.” He believed that the way we think implies an awareness of the act of thinking. In contrast to other living species, this endows us with a sense of “self,” an identity. In other words, what we call human intelligence requires self-perception. Descartes simply articulated what our civilization has always assumed — that intelligence is an attribute of a self-aware thinker.
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In the age of artificial intelligence (AI), civilization has adopted a new definition of intelligence that no longer requires thinking and even less, self-awareness. This trend has found its supreme expression in a new degree program proposed by a prestigious university in Washington, DC.
Here is how it advertises its latest offering: “Georgetown University’s Master of Professional Studies in Applied Intelligence prepares you to navigate today’s increasingly complex and data-driven intelligence landscape. You’ll master the analytical and technical skills that you can immediately put to use to improve performance, increase efficiencies, and generate actionable insights.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A sophisticated but highly imperfect and fundamentally flawed simulation of human thought processes that dispenses with the need to be intelligent while still claiming the title of intelligence
Descartes created an expanded version of his reflection when he wrote in French: “Puisque je doute, je pense; puisque je pense, j’existe” or “Because I doubt, I think; because I think, I exist.” In other words, thinking implies the ability to doubt what one holds to be true.
Proponents of AI claim it simulates thinking. But can it simulate doubt? Developers will tell us that it can be programmed to doubt any proposition it generates and then use its access to data to confirm or deny the truth of that proposition. But, in human terms, doubt is what permits us to establish the status of our belief about the world and things in the world. Can AI believe? That would be a difficult case to argue and an impossible one to prove. Ergo, we must doubt that AI can doubt. And if it can’t doubt, it can’t think, least of all about its own existence.
Proponents of applied intelligence like to make assertions like this one: “All too often though, AI is viewed as complex or mysterious. So, how do you begin building AI into your business and engaging with the whole workforce to optimize and release its benefits?”
The reasoning contained in this sentence tells us more about modern techno culture than it does about AI. Its proponents claim that “mystery” — the unanswerable question raised by ethical and existential thinking — disappears as soon as one can focus on getting the “workforce to optimize and release … benefits.” Intelligence is no longer about understanding the world. It’s about optimizing benefits. This is a fairly accurate formulation of what might be called non-ethical utilitarianism aimed at producing not what is useful to the greatest number — the definition of ethical utilitarianism — but what is profitable to the few who are in control, those who run the business.
Another assertion confirms the ideological thrust of the pitch: “The rapid pace of development in solutions underpinned by AI will soon completely eclipse the performance of those that are not.” Like everything else in modern society — especially in US culture — it’s all about competitive advantage. It isn’t about bettering the world, but getting an edge in the marketplace, beating others to the punch and reaping profit from a position of monopolistic advantage.
AI is also about what has become the ultimate motivating factor in consumer society culture: convenience. “We no longer need to hold knowledge in our memory, but to understand the relevance of the information we find.” This single sentence — on the Capgemini corporation’s website — reveals a deep state of confusion about the three essential terms it doesn’t bother to define: knowledge, memory and information.
The idea of “holding knowledge” makes sense only if knowledge means data. But professional skills require a type of knowledge that has little to do with data. Think about what people know how to do to achieve their professional goals: a juggler tossing six balls in the air, Warren Buffett analyzing stocks, Lebron James finding a way for his team to score, Herbie Hancock playing the piano and even Donald Trump tweeting. None of these skills amounts to “holding knowledge” or having access to existing data.
These highly-skilled practitioners “think” in a more comprehensive way than simply sifting through data. Their thinking requires self-awareness. For the juggler it’s proprioception, awareness of body position and interaction with the physical world. All of the individuals cited above have built a varied experience that guides a myriad of simultaneous choices in interaction with a dynamic environment. Their performance is not the result of algorithmic logic. Their analog knowledge cannot be represented digitally.
The fact that Georgetown’s program has nothing to do with intelligence becomes clearer when we learn about its application. “Unlike other degrees, our program focuses on four key sectors: homeland security, cyber intelligence, law enforcement, and competitive business intelligence.” Intelligence is about understanding. This program is about getting things done, whether it makes sense or not.
Three of the four areas of application cited by Georgetown University emerged only in the past 70 years of human history: homeland security, cyber intelligence and competitive business intelligence. Only the fourth item in the list, law enforcement, has had some form of institutional existence in previous times.
Throughout history, people have applied two forms of intelligence to solve problems and create new ideas. Neither of them required anything artificial. The first is the model of individual intelligence or genius, exemplified in Western culture by personalities from Aristotle to Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon, from Galen to Marie Curie, from Leonardo da Vinci to Nikola Tesla. But far more common, but not so easy to identify, is the more mysterious phenomenon: collective intelligence. It has also had far more impact than individual intelligence.
Though trivialized in the concept “wisdom of crowds,” collective intelligence has driven human collaborative endeavors since prehistory through eras of innovative toolmaking, astronomical observation, philosophy, civil engineering and the invention and elaboration of a plethora of professional and artistic skills. There is a simple word for it: culture. Human culture, which belongs to no one in particular, is the ultimate foundation of intelligence.
In its promotion of artificial intelligence, Capgemini puts forward the promise of an alliance between man and machine. The company has given it a name: “This alliance will move businesses to a state of ‘hyperintelligence’ — where human intelligence, innovation and imagination is [sic] liberated and enhanced by technology. Ultimately, this will raise the value and effectiveness of everything a business seeks to do.”
As expected, applied hyperintelligence seeks to achieve the supreme goal promoted by contemporary culture: “raise … value and effectiveness.” In other words, optimize profit. That’s because it no longer needs to think or believe in its own existence, something René Descartes apparently needed to do. AI optimizes because it no longer thinks or even pretends to think. It manages data.
In contrast, human intelligence comprehends much more than data and can even be inhibited by an excess of data. It thrives on analogic relationships, starting — as Descartes sensed — with proprioception, the juggler’s or the philosopher’s awareness of the position of his or her own body in space. This includes our faculty for perennially adapting, through macro and micro movements, to the full range of parameters in our environment.
If we accept the need to rely on a new form of hyperintelligence shared with machines, we may be removing and denying the intelligence that allows each of us to respond authentically to our environment. Throughout history, human intelligence has focused principally on creating strategies and habits aimed at adapting to the world and managing a dynamic relationship with it. But that was before we discovered the truth that is now promoted by our best universities: it’s all about establishing a competitive advantage and optimizing profit.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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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