23 May 2023 | ESSAY
On the Limits of Technology
It’s been brewing in my mind for too long. Writing about the limitations of technology. There is such a wave of thinking and questioning around technology these days, since the advent for ChatGPT, and before that, AI (artificial intelligence) in general. I have been reading articles and articles and thinking and thinking, building on strains of thought and experience that come a long way.
Perhaps I only want to express something very simple. Give an answer to a central question. And that is, no, all this cannot reach, cannot match – in a fundamental way (which means, it also never will) - human intelligence (or what is called the point of singularity) and by extension, life itself That is the limit of this particular (and any, for that matter) technology. It is embedded in the very name for it: artificial intelligence. It is exactly that and will always be that: artificial.
The next thing I would then want to say is: don’t fear it. Do not fear the technology, both in the psychological and the Biblical sense. Don’t grow anxiety and stress around its capabilities. And don’t fear it as in falling over your feet in awe of it. There is nothing wondrous about it. And no, it won’t change the world fundamentally. In short, get over it.
But why do I say this, why do I have an urge to express it, take time, put myself on the line about it? Most generally, because it affects me as a human being. If anything is touted as potentially becoming human, or even near human, while it simply cannot, it affronts my dignity as a human. And what irks me most is that many commentators (and the very many that share such a belief) totally put the cart in front of the horse by basically arguing that hey, this artificiality can easily overtake us because, hey, we ourselves are artificial! In other words, first we make a machine, and then, being so enamoured of our own creation, start to identify ourselves with it, believing that we ourselves are machines.
This has already happened during the so-called Age of Enlightenment in two major ways,. First we “discovered” the world afresh by filtering it through a limited lens called Science, and then ended up believing that all of reality is matter only – all is measurable, observable. Then, a man like Descartes becomes so trapped in his own brilliance of mental reasoning, that he starts to believe that his whole existence is based on – begins and ends with - thinking. There are of course classical antecedents for these “revelations”, like some early Greek philosophers believing that all of reality is really only numbers (after getting themselves drunk on mathematics) and they are echoed up to this day in those who would declare that all of reality is really only information.
All of these have this in common: a reduction of reality to what can be controlled by us. And consequently accompanied by the fear that what we control, will turn around and control us.
They also have this in common: they lack boundaries. How many times do we have to hear, “the possibilities of this technology are limitless!” But, just like a traumatized person (trauma as the shattering of boundaries), we at once enter a delirium of both high ambition and existential angst. So the recipe goes like this: turn a part of the whole into The Whole. And by that, gain control. Then, find yourself in utter fear of losing control – as amply illustrated by OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman’s “guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to” in the event of super-contagious viruses, nuclear war, and AI “that attacks us” (quote from The Atlantic).
The current nature of the widespread reaction to ChatGPT is a powerful example of this mental and emotive trap. Whereas it is essentially nothing more than a calculator, it produces results that resembles a human narrative and voice. You ask it a question and it not only refer you to answers, it speaks to you as if giving you a human answer. But even to say that “it speaks” is already blurring the lines. ChatGPT does not speak, it does not think, it does not decide, it does not reason, is not intelligent, is utterly not creative – it is none of the personifications we so easily attach to it. It is a high speed and layered calculator, programmed and spoon-fed by humans. Its intelligence is artificial, therefore, it only seems to be intelligent. And if you are bowled over by it, the joke is only on you.
It’s classic narcissism to turn the artificial into something real – or to believe that the artificial will one day be real. The narcissist looks in the mirror and falls in love with its own image. And falling in love means that on an emotive level, you feel less than your image. You identify more with your two-dimensional image than with your real, three-dimensional self. And henceforth, you live for your image and not from within. Donald Trump (yes, the eternal example) is the master narcissist. No matter how morally rotten from the inside, he keeps that image going – from the golden hair to the golden letters T.R.U.M.P that he sells to be emblazoned on high an prominent buildings. At heart, he is no Christian, no Democrat, no Republican. He lives a likeable image for those who will believe his bluff (and praise his image) no matter the utter depravity of his inner life. For the three dimensional Trump would be too abhorrent for most to bear. But the two dimensional image is easily consumed – such a sweet taste! And soon addiction sets in.
It is indeed so that some can fall in love with a persona falsified by ChatGPT and the likes. But there is a more general falling in love at work, as it has been since the dawn of civilization: we turn our own creations into gods. Literally. And then we fall down in awe in front of them. And if this reverie leaves us with a hangover – as it inevitably does - we most often try to remedy it by applying even more of it. Just like my late grandfather who, once, when my mother accidently mixed salt in with cinnamon - in stead of sugar - to be added to our “melkkos” (a kind of milky porridge), and everyone then started complaining about the salty taste, he stoically announced that it is all OK, you just need to add more of the “sugar”! And yet, obviously, what he was doing was to add more salt while purely believing that it made the taste less salty.
That’s the story of our technological epoch. With every new “revolution”, we sing high praises to ourselves and the god of Progress. And when the hangover kicks in, we dream of and come up with even stronger technologies. Messed up the environment with the industrial revolution? Fix it with the digital revolution! And now, with social media putting a whole generation of teens at risk of mental breakdown, welcome to ChatGPT to relieve your loneliness!
The point to consider is this: what is two dimensional cannot replace the full bodied and full-souled three dimensional self. It can only mimic it. So, whenever you make use if it, do not lose track of this inherent limitation. Do not fall in love. Realize that it only adds quantity. It only speed things up. And with every gain in velocity, there is a price to pay. Quantity trumping quality. Be aware of that price, and carefully consider whether and how much of it you can afford.
I myself is in the business of the artificial. What is art but an artificial means to evoke feeling? Beware me, and all artists, though, of putting the cart in front of the horse. Art should lead back to the primary, the real, and not become and end in itself. What I do on stage, should serve and not drain or dominate the world of real-life emotions, where actual relationships and the health of one’s soul are involved. Once I, the artist on stage, the HA!Man.. becomes the purpose of it all (my glorification), then a hangover will kick in and emotional lives will be distorted rather than nourished. For what I do on stage is artificial. My sounds evoke feelings of love, of spiritual connections, it blows oxygen into frozen hearts, it dusts off innate abilities to express. But once that is done, me and my music should shift into the background. Then whatever is taken from the music hall should effectively feed into life: into inspirations, into warmer relations, into sounder senses.
What is it to be real, to be three dimensional? What is it to be alive, a living organism? It is emphatically something you cannot reduce to a thing, something you cannot completely describe, know, or control. It is not only object, but subject too. The scientist strives to reduce the subjective as close to as zero as possible, and is left with a part of reality that is describable, controllable and useful. But the scientist should step back from its stage once the observations, the theorizations and calculations are done. It should not become an end in itself, declaring itself to be the voice of reality.
There are things which are not things, yet we experience them. These are what we cannot put into words, what we cannot dissect on a table. We call them things of the “soul”, by lack of any material terms to refer to them. We call them Will, we call them Creativity, we call them Intuition. These are all aspects of life from within. Not life as seen in the mirror. And these are all missing from the things we make and manufacture, however advanced, automated and “self-learning” they may be. They can only get better in mimicking subjectivity, and get better in fooling us. But by their very nature, they remain two-dimensional. And those who promise and predict that they are or will become otherwise, are selling you snake oil.
If you really want to recreate life and actual intelligence, go forth and engage with another human being through sexual intercourse, which is, yes, a tough task, if you would want to create something of quality, as that depends on how much both of you have been living life’s ups and downs to the full – instinctively, emotionally and mentally. Life is created and lived from within, and nothing we will ever be able to make and construct and design will even come remotely close to that.
Or to take another angle: if you are concerned about humanity’s future on Earth, do not fly to Mars or build space capsules. Take your rocket to land back firmly on this planet and reconnect with its soils. Our redemption does not lie in flying even more high and fast, but in rebalancing ourselves with the very primitive basics of life.
The newness of LLM’s (Large Language Models) like ChatGPT lies in its ability to cover vast amounts of information (quantity) at speed (quantity again) and then to build prose style responses to queries, based on probabilities of word sequences and existing associations of meaning. In all of this, there is a human hand. Firstly, it is totally dependent on human-generated content. Secondly, all its parameters are human-fed and determined. What you get as a result is therefore nothing original to the technology, but a regurgitation of human material along human determined lines. It achieves this by reducing human speech to calculable probabilities and will therefore be especially adept in rendering the type of information and language style that comes close to being very probable and calculable (in other words, neat and boring). Thus, in style it is limited as well as in substance. And it is fundamentally limited as to being original. It is anything but original.
That it can be useful, there is no doubt about. But even here, one should balance its usefulness with the price one pays. Speed is not everything, as the rabbit had to discover in its race with the tortoise. Consider climbing a mountain. It will take you a lot of time and energy to do this with your feet and a pack on your back. Why not just go by helicopter? The top is the top anyway, and that’s what it is all about, not? And yet it is not. If you are just two-dimensional, it makes no difference. Let the machine take you so you can enjoy your views like a machine. But scaling a mountain with your own sweat works more three-dimensionally. Your will and motivation is much, much more involved. Your perseverance, and the slow experience of advancing along different perspectives of the mountain side, the feeling of textures, the changes in wind, the wind on your skin, the real battle with gravity.. No helicopter can provide you with these. There is a whole inner world at work and that makes the experience of the top so different. There is a happiness and fulfillment and a spiritual connection that comes with a more authentic take on the mountain than that of being whipped up by technology. The helicopter can save a life endangered by a fall - yes, the more advanced a technology, the more extreme its usefulness – but using a helicopter when you have, in fact, healthy legs and a living soul, will rather reduce you, lessen your level of happiness in life, drain your spiritual well-being and may leave you lonely and cynical when it comes to an experience that could have been sublime. Living takes time not for no reason.
There is also a whole other side to the limitations of technology – in terms of the very usefulness that is its biggest selling point. How safe is self driving cars really? How accurate is ChatGPT and similar software when it comes to actual information given? And the problem here is not stages of development – that the technologies will become better in time. It lies in the fact that there is a limit to how advanced a technology can be before it becomes unstable and, yes, uncontrollable. This is the reason why self-driving cars did not take off as it was widely projected it would. The “neural networks” involved becomes so complicated and dense – in order to respond to the myriad of situations a human driver are exposed to in reality – that it becomes impossible to predict exactly how the car would behave. Moreover, once it makes a fatal mistake, it is often impossible to get to the origin of that mistake. Self-driving cars should therefore come with this label: Enter at your own risk. Car might kill you for no reason at all!
A similar problem exists with LLM’s. The level of complexity of calculation is already such that the machine would “hallucinate”, spewing out nonsense more often than not. Again, this is not a problem of being not advanced or “learned” enough yet. It is a consequence of the very advancedness it requires to spew out anything intelligible at all. Like the self-driving car, you should heed the label: Use this to gain knowledge at your own risk. You might be fed pure B.S. without you realizing it at all!
This is simply what happens if you try to replace subjectivity with pure objectivity: there is no way in the world your zillions-per-second calculations can match feeling. Because when we drive or engage in mental tasks, we constantly apply feeling and intuition too. Technology does not “approach” feeling or intuition. Long before it already reaches a limit and from there on simply loses it.
Not to mention the limitations of the physical energy and infrastructure required to keep this machine running. Two Google clicks uses enough energy to boil a cup of water. How much energy does one Chat request use – an action that requires far more calculating power? Is anyone adding it all up? This lies at the heart of idolizing technology: that our boundaries are slipping and we become blind to the price we are paying in physical terms. We should only consider applauding a technological advance once all the costs of it – human and natural – are incorporated into the valuation. If the benefit is high and the price is low, we have reason to applaud and congratulate. But if the benefit is questionable, or highly circumstantial, and the price quite high, we will naturally look at his contraption and wonder whether it is more monster than miracle.
As long as large companies (with their own boundary problems) prophesize about “this changes everything” while chasing massive profit margins and there is little talk and action regards the price we will be paying for all of it, I withhold my enthusiasm (and according to some polls, most people actually do the same).
Besides, writing this essay, I rather do it by my own feet, having lied awake for hours to think about it all, having spent time to read a lot (humanly written work of quality) and converse with others on the topic and then, now, writing word by word that includes my subjective presence (my feelings, my experience, my fears and whishes) and doing this with a real audience in mind (you), than taking the Chat helicopter to bring me to the top of having something neat and boring ready for you to read that took only 12 seconds to generate, B.S. included.
“Yes, but you could have saved a lot of time!” Indeed. But guess what. I am not a calculation. I am a living breathing and feeling human being. And I derive a lot of necessary life stuff plus deep satisfaction from doing things more slowly, more embodied, and more authentically. And you know what else? I want to die one day with some sense of fulfillment (you get your cup filed, that is how you are able to die). I am already living with a whole lot of technology to balance with a healthy existence. I’d rather wish for less speed and not more.
Is it any surprise that the more technologically advanced a society becomes, the less time people have? The more raced their lives, the higher the incidence of debilitating loneliness, mental breakdown and social disintegration? The Smartphone empowers the individual like never before. And yet this Smartphone is the thing we battle most to control, lest it keeps disrupting full bodied conversation and relating all the time. Furthermore, this was sold to us as the thing that would bring the world more close together, and yet it is achieving exactly the opposite?
“Hi, grandfather! The pancake won’t get any sweeter, because you are just throwing more and more salt on it!” And yet, his obstinate refusal to question the cinnamon mix of my mom, convinced him somehow that salt tasted sweet.
I am not a primitivist, trying to hold out against any technology at all. I also don’t want to join a time-warp society where there are no cars nor electricity. I am arguing here for a certain sanity, a certain self-awareness. We, as humans, have these capabilities. Through collective effort in the form of large companies and arms of government (especially the armies of governments), we have little problem to come up with technological wonders. I am pleading for not falling in love with them. Because technology is the easy part. And it is only a part. It is only about making things easy. For a fuller life and a healthy society, you also need things that are are actually rather difficult. Creativity is difficult, wisdom is difficult, intuition is difficult. And you also need to make space for that which cannot be controlled nor be understood by the mind. Life is not cheap and has not come about in a fast and cheap way. And when we construct fast and cheap things like machines, we need to stay aware of their very grave limitations.
And with that awareness comes responsibility. When we go for the shortcut, we often just want to shed some burdenous layer of responsibility. The machines will do it for us! And yet, they can never ever fully do it for us. And so certain things slip in the process. Then, if that happens, the last thing we can do, is to blame the machines. Even if we shed responsibility, we remain responsible for what we make. There won’t come a time when the machines will “take over” because they have become stronger than us. But there could come a time when we will have gone so far into our own mirror image that we will lose our balance, fall into the pond and drown.
But will this ever happen? I do harbour a certain trust in humanity to think, no, we will survive these mind-boggling and mind-generated revolutions, that our hearts will ultimately refuse to be reduced to mechanical pump machines and that the slow and heavy earth will make sure our souls stay in tact.
But we do pay a price and will still be paying that price - until we learn that none of this is inevitable; until we learn that we do have a choice in this and that those preachers who tell us to adapt or die only have an eye on their own personal gain. To be human, to be happy, to not only survive, but live, we don’t need most of the technologies we chase today. Our inner nature and nature external provide most. Hunter gatherers worked for only four hours a day and for the rest actually just lived well.
But again, this is not to say we should, or can go back to those times (times, by the way, that lasted for tens of thousands of years, while the age of technology is but two centuries old and already our very survival is in question). No, for the sake of ourselves and the planet we depend on (as there is in actual and sane fact no other home for us), we need to take responsibility. And the first step in that is to realize that technology is not god-like. It has limits. And that that is at once a reason to stop praising it, and to stop fearing it.
In other words, give that two dimensional mirror-image a break. And start being the vulnerable, fleshy and soulful being you are. That is how we’ll retain something of our much needed balance. And a future to look forward to.
Francois (the “HA!Man” – my art-ificial identity)
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