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The Artifice of Artificial Intelligence

Our uneasiness about artificial intelligence, Convivium contributor Timothy deVries argues, stems in large measure from forgetting that it’s only ever a proxy for the intelligence of those humans who create it.

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The Artifice of Artificial Intelligence March 26, 2019  |  By Timothy deVries
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There’s a hymn which, loosely paraphrased, contains a Christian prayer: "teach me to accept the things that are revealed, and to refrain from understanding the things which are too deep for me."

As a specifically Christian prayer, it creates a distinction between passive and active understanding – particularly the kind of active understanding that grasps deep spiritual truths in places where we are not entitled to find them. And it places an onus on Christians to refrain from reconciling themselves to things which, on face value, escape or exceed thought.

I once overheard someone talking about whether there was an appropriate way for Christians to approach or think about things such as alien lifeforms or artificial intelligence. The answer was interesting, and instructive: we can affirm at one and the same time that nothing is outside of God’s sovereignty, and that we do not have the capacity to really understand such things.

Does that perspective simply reflect a lack of imagination?

Films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey only serve to confirm our worst fears about the nature of artificial intelligence; namely, that there is something about the intelligence of artificial intelligence which escapes our ability to control it.

It’s difficult to accept the challenge this levels to thought. The tendency to put thought within a humanistic context, subject to an exchange amongst equals, and in loving deference to social ethics, only serves to negate artificial intelligence more fully. Who can accept that technology always ‘wins,’ that it is only ever put into the service of a narrow and infuriating totalitarianism? This is an unacceptable hypothesis for anyone who thinks, for anyone who makes an effort to think. But artificial intelligence, in its indifference to the conditions and context of thought, appears to push for its own objectives, which appear to be decidedly different than those of anyone who thinks that intelligence, in general, is something which serves the common good.

The key word here, is "appears." Is the appearance of thinking or intelligence, different than the real thing? Thinking and intelligence do something. They accomplish something and produce effects. And the effects the produce, can either be natural, or artificial. Artifice is something peculiar; it’s not solely the province of technology – or artists. Artificial intelligence is, by definition, the kind of intelligence that isn’t what it appears to be. And the artifice of artificial intelligence, is the kind of intelligence which, in being designed to serve human ends, actually does quite the opposite.

In philosophy, the tendency to assume thoughts with a natural appearance are true, and those with an artificial appearance are false, is called the natural fallacy. This term, and its definition, legitimately put into question, and dispel, a whole host of thoughts and ideas and concepts grounded in assumptions about how the world really was. The flatness of the earth, to use one example, is something that for a long time was taken for granted. But this is not an argument for how even the most intelligent amongst us can be deceived by natural thoughts. The point here, rather, is to show how the artifice of artificial intelligence – an intelligence which is ‘creepy’, ‘authoritarian’, or ‘controlling’ – hints at yet an unthought-of-dimension within thought in general.

It’s a mistake to identify only a person, or technology for that matter, by the blind-spots within their thinking. And it’s easy to focus on the deceptive character of artificial intelligence. I’m not suggesting that the devices or strategies of artificial intelligence conceal some great truth. But the adage holds, at least in part, that art – or artifice – is a lie that can reveal the truth. So it’s critical to ask about the nature of artificial intelligence without resorting to labels for aesthetic impressions.

It’s important to ask this question since the critic holds that artificial intelligence is only a representation of intelligence. If the critic’s assertion holds, then artificial intelligence is not intelligence at all. At best it would be a deceptive ruse, meant to confuse or deny the critic something to which he or she is otherwise entitled; namely, the truth which it conceals. If that really is a viable hypothesis, it’s appropriate to wonder: can artificial intelligence provide the critic with something that is not really within its nature to give?

In other words, can artificial intelligence, as a representation of intelligence, serve human ends? Intelligence that cannot be used, which isn’t, in fact, the real thing, is not really intelligence at all. At best it is a distraction from what is really going, and a proxy for real intelligence. Real intelligence recognizes that artificial intelligence is ‘inhuman’, because it cannot give what it doesn’t have. And it cannot give what it doesn’t have because it is not its own master. Artificial intelligence forfeits a claim on real intelligence, by adhering slavishly to a programmer, a designer, a creator.

The fidelity of artificial intelligence to these sources of real intelligence reveal the operation behind the ruse. An artificial intelligence accepts the intelligence of a programmer, designer or creator, only to represent that intelligence to something, or someone else. That exchange, the practice of taking intelligence from one domain and applying it or using it in another domain, only serves to emphasize the deceptive nature of that intelligence. What makes sense in one domain, is nonsense in another.

Artificial intelligence is generally associated with the technology in which it is manifest. The character of technology, the essence of technology: is that something artificial? It is artificial, if only to be distinguished from the natural. It is artificial, in a way which serves to augment human nature. A cell phone enables us to do more and to expand our presence – and to do it naturally, which is to say, within the realm of human understanding and to our comfort.

What this relationship to technology in fact hides, is not a truth, but an intelligence, which is actually an alliance, a commitment, or fidelity to the person who uses it. For such a person, this intelligence, this fidelity, isn’t artificial. It is a completely natural relationship between a person and the technology which they are using: it is a relationship, at its height, of mastery. But this relationship, and the mastery it implies, occludes another relationship: the relationship between technology and its design parameters, its character as an unnatural object, fashioned and programmed by some hidden creator.

This is not to say that the same intelligence is to one, artificial, and to another, natural. It’s to say that our natural relationship with technology, and the way in which it is used to enhance our own intelligence, is a result of careful prior thinking by the person or institution which created that technology and programmed it to act, or function, with intelligence. Artificial intelligence, in this context, is simply a failure to recognize that intelligence that is represented by the person or institution creating and programming technology has become a proxy for the intelligence of a user.


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