Last week at my local Toastmasters International meeting, a member delivered a speech entitled “Antidote for A.I.” He opened the speech with the phrase “I think therefore I am” from Descartes. He went on to explain how we as a race of people have entered the final phase of our civilization, due in no small part to the invasive nature of artificial intelligence. His “antidote” consisted of finding ways for us to remember that we are human and to engage in activities that did not involve interaction with social media or any other computerized technology that might employ the use of artificial intelligence. It was a brief, simple speech that did not delve too deeply into the nuances of what we are facing, but it struck a chord with me nonetheless, and the warning he gave must not go unheeded. Much of what makes us human is indeed at risk from ever-evolving technologies that clandestinely threaten to transform us into something we cannot afford to become: servants to our own creations.
My fellow Toastmaster did not mention any of the benefits or advantages that artificial intelligence clearly offers. Someone working in a business where a large amount of data has to be interpreted very quickly can make use of its abilities to efficiently sort through and organize that information. The technology is not without its uses that are undoubtedly making many people’s lives easier. We have a civilization that is interconnected in ways that our ancestors just one or two generations ago could not have contemplated. We have extraordinary amounts of information at our fingertips, two or three swipes of a screen or clicks on a link away using our phones, ipads, or other devices. These ever-changing technologies are not going away; they are instead advancing and increasing in power and speed at an exponential pace. The way of life my own parents knew in the days before computers became so ubiquitous has been all but relegated to memories of a quaint and primitive “pre-computer” era that many alive today have never known. The young people I work with each day have never lived in a world without the internet, and they couldn’t begin to imagine one.
Though I have only owned a smartphone for about four years now (I pushed back against that tide for as long as I could hold out until certain conditions made it difficult to simply function within our system without the thing), I have always been a fan of well-crafted science fiction that tackles the concept of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” one of my all-time favorite television shows, engages with this issue head on on multiple occasions. The Starship Enterprise has an android as a member of its crew who states that “he” would gladly give up his great physical strength, extraordinary computational abilities, and virtual immortality just for a chance to be human. In the more recent spin-off series “Star Trek: Picard,” the technology has advanced to the point where a person’s consciousness can actually be transferred into an android body to avoid death. Though that idea carries some existential issues of its own, I found myself thinking, “You know, sign me up.” A new body, one that wouldn’t have to deal with chronic back pain, the risk of disease, or any of the other thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to–it has its appeals for sure. However, Captain Picard from Star Trek reminds us that our mortality is what defines us; it is part of the truth of our existence. Ironically, it is Captain Picard’s consciousness that is transferred into an android body when the symptoms of a brain syndrome end his physical life. For two of the spinoff’s three seasons, he presses on as an artificial life form. Is he still truly “alive”? Is it still really him, or a spiritless copy? Does he still have a soul? Would such a transformation, if possible, be worth the sacrifice–whatever that sacrifice might be? Would you still be “you”? Those are questions for another time, but ones certainly worth discussing as A.I. technology continues to advance.
Though “Star Trek” looks at the issue from one angle, it is not the only science fiction franchise that has explored it. In the universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune, humans are forced to wage war against “thinking machines” that threaten humanity. Thousands of years later, in the time that the original Dune is set, machines still exist as tools, but creating a “thinking” one is forbidden. Computers are devices of the distant past, and mankind has evolved to maximize the potential of the human mind so that computers are no longer needed. The human race had seen the dangers of thinking machines, and would never go back. Then there is the “Terminator” franchise, where a computerized defense system becomes self-aware and decides to take out the human race itself. One can also reference the “Blade Runner” films, taking place in a not-too-distant future where artificial lifeforms, referred to as “replicants,” are manufactured to do the jobs deemed too dangerous for humans to tackle. If they rebel against their human “oppressors,” as they inevitably do, it falls to the “Blade Runner” police units to “retire” them by force. Once again, the theme of the creation turning on the creator raises its head. Though the issues in these stories are still grounded in science fiction, we have our own frightening realities to deal with when it comes to artificial intelligence, that if mismanaged or not managed at all, could lead to some terrifying results.
I stepped out of the “technological river” long ago, wanting no part in the transformation I was witnessing around me. You can’t simply step back into that river at the same place where you left it; the current has long since left you behind. I’m good with that. Yes, I have a smartphone, which I reluctantly carry around in a backpack, looking at its minimal applications (kept minimal on purpose) such as an email program and texting features perhaps once a week just to clear off the junk mail and errant messages never really meant for me. I would just as soon use the device as a doorstop or paperweight. I admit it is good to have in the event of an emergency when you have to call out for help, but beyond that, I see it as little more than a distraction that draws us away from more beneficial activities, such as taking a walk in the woods or at the beach, meditating, playing with our children, reading a classic book, and engaging in real-life, authentic, person-to-person conversations. Step onto a bus or subway today, and everyone you see will be sitting or standing in silence staring at one device or another, sometimes at more than one at a time. I have seen groups of “friends” at a table in a restaurant, all sitting there immersed in their own little electronic worlds, never looking up at or speaking to one another during the course of the entire meal. I can’t imagine finding it easier to text someone a question than vocally asking it when they are sitting not two feet away from me. What is happening to us?
When it comes to technology, I definitely don’t suffer from FOMO (Fear OF Missing Out). Yeah, I know some of the acronyms now substituting for actual speech. I work with teenagers all day. It’s hard not to pick up some of it. They are the ones for whom I am most afraid. They are not necessarily “tech-savvy,” but more like “tech dependent.” They can’t do without their social media and the devices that give them access to it. To break away would equate to the effective end of their social lives, or so they believe. The greatest battle of my English teaching career is now in its early stages, and that is with ChatGPT and its ability to immediately craft an essay or poem about anything at all. The hard work, the critical thinking, the satisfaction from having crafted a genuinely interesting and personalized take on how a work of literature impacts you–the self-discipline and mental fortitude that comes from tackling an intellectual challenge on your own–all lost to the ease and simplicity of having a machine write things for you instead. They aren’t going to use it to inspire them or as a tool for their improvement; they will use it to speed things up, get those tedious assignments out of the way without having to genuinely engage with them, and to plagiarize, without the slightest degree of regret or remorse in doing so (again, this doesn’t yet speak to all of them–some still honor the process, though their numbers are shrinking yearly). The only computer I want my students to be proficient in using is the one between their ears, which, for most of them, is in dire need of a system upgrade to the critical thinking and creativity apps.
I understand that they are entering (or have always been living in) a world where competency in using such tools is just expected. Those who don’t, like myself, are outliers who are beyond all understanding. I feel like I have stumbled down into Plato’s Cave and I am desperate to explain the realities of the world to those who only see the shadows, only no one is listening. This isn’t hubris or self-righteousness. It’s humility. I know how much I don’t know. The key is that I am aware of what is happening, where too many others around me seem oblivious to it or believe me to be overreacting. Anyone remember Cassandra, the Trojan princess gifted with the ability to see the future, but cursed to have to endure what it feels like when no one believes her? I sympathize, princess. I am open to having my mind changed should arguments compelling enough to do so be presented. I just haven’t yet encountered them. That doesn’t mean I’m not listening for them. On the contrary, I am actively seeking them out. I wish that the reverse were true for those who still choose to remain in the cave with the shadows.
Students today struggle to read (when it comes to texts of any degree of length or complexity), and most do not wish to try (fortunately, that is not yet a completely universal attitude). Why read a 200 page book and interpret it for yourself, wrestle with and debate its ideas, when the latest TikTok video that just went viral is sitting in your feed ready for multiple repetitive viewings, sharings, and endless comments? Why actually wordsmith an essay together and experience the inherent pleasures of such creativity when you could be gossiping about others in a group chat? Again, such tools have their positive potentials and can make things more convenient, but at what cost? Television had educational potential too when it first emerged, but we missed that boat, and it became an entertainment device only. There’s no going back on that one.
I will be moving to paper and pen/pencil essays for my students almost exclusively in the future, done in real time right before my eyes, guaranteeing that what they produce is an authentic measure of what their unique minds are capable of, giving me genuine starting points to help them develop the skill sets needed to improve. With that will need to come healthy explanations of why those skills are needed in the first place, and why they should care about them. I welcome those discussions. Many of them won’t listen; they certainly won’t agree. I’m not offering the path of least resistance, but rather an actual “road less traveled by.” I can no longer take anything for granted when they walk in the door when it comes to what I might think they already know or can do. We will start from where they show me they are, and build from there. Perhaps I may authorize word-processing final drafts, once I have seen the brainstorming/pre-writing, outlining, and rough draft steps done through methodical independent effort, followed in the end by an explanation of what changes were made between the drafts, and a reflection on the entire process. I will also require many of their sources of information to be be in print form–complex, authentic, reliable, valid sources they will have to genuinely read, and with a critical eye. It will be a long, slow procedure, but I will be able to rest assured in the knowledge that what they produced was an accurate reflection of what they alone can do, and any thinking present came from their own minds and not the “intelligence” of a machine.
On my classroom desk stands a small 1980’s era action figure of Captain Picard from Star Trek, having been transformed into a character known as “Locutus.” A cybernetic alien race known as “the Borg” abducts the captain and forces him, through mechanical implants, to join their unified “collective.” He is effectively “assimilated” into their hive mind, and becomes one of them, where his vast knowledge and experience become tools the Borg use to attack and attempt to destroy humanity. His free will is unable to stop them. With the help of the captain’s knowledge and unwilling assistance, the Borg kill thousands before the crew of the Enterprise manage to recapture him and separate him from the collective. For decades thereafter, the character suffers from the mental trauma and guilt associated with that experience (see the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes “The Best of Both Worlds,” Parts One and Two). The figure is a constant reminder to me of even what a wise, intelligent, and courageous leader can become if seduced by the cold, empty, and soulless grip of unfettered technology. The Borg do not see themselves as evil. Quite the contrary. They view themselves as liberators, pursuing a state of “perfection,” each species they assimilate helping them move one step closer to that. Why would anyone choose freedom and self-determination over perfection? A peaceful, quiet, yet lonely mind over the ever-present voices of every member of the collective in your head at all times? Most illogical.
Some may argue that the technologies are simply tools, that it takes a person with nefarious intentions to use them for nefarious means, but the devices themselves are neutral, neither good nor bad. I would disagree. In Adam Alter’s book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, he tells us the stories of many tech executives who would not allow their own children to use the very devices their own companies manufactured. They knew what those devices could do, and kept their own kids away from them, bringing home boxes of books for their kids to immerse themselves in instead. Is the device really just a neutral tool? It doesn’t look like the very makers of the devices think so. If they, the ones who should understand their natures more than any others, do not know how to protect their own children from them, what chance do our own kids have? What chance do the kids of kids who have fallen under the spell of that which is “irresistible” have? The Borg mantra is “Resistance is futile.” I would say that it is not. In fact, it is a moral and spiritual imperative. I am not opposed to technologies that improve or enhance human flourishing, so long as they can be kept from turning into tools of subjugation, propaganda, and dehumanization. It is up to us to be the vigilant guardians of what it means to be human.
We are dealing with unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression among the youth of our society, and this is due in no small part to their incessant use of addictive technologies that are transforming their minds. Please engage in genuine, face to face conversations with those you care most about regarding how artificial intelligence is impacting our civilization, and what we can do to learn to better manage it. It isn’t going to just go away. Awareness must be raised and actions taken to ensure that the scenarios envisioned in our science fiction franchises remain only prescient warnings to keep us on our toes and not irreversible realities. Let the battle cry be “Support A.I.: Avoiding Insanity.”