Our Brains Don’t Understand Artificial Intelligence

Weoften refer to a ship as “she”, even trains and sometimes our cars. It’s not uncommon in the manufacturing industry for workers to name large pieces of equipment. Research into voice assistants like Alexa and Siri noted that some people will treat their engagement with a range of human engagements from politieness to rudeness and indifference. Humans have long anthropomorphised technology.

When ChatGPT and DALL-E came leaping onto the scene it was with wild abandon, like a dog greeting its owner, bowling them over. We weren’t quite sure what to do then. We still aren’t. Our brains, minds really, are struggling to truly comprehend Artificial Intelligence. Why? What does this mean for the future of AI in the near term?

Ever since technology burst forth from our imagination, we have been developing various ways in which we form relationships with our technology creations. Some technologies, we form rituals around. Your smartphone is an example. You have it set up a certain way, you have rituals around how, when and where you use it every day. The reason you can personally name your mobile is that the developers of the iPhone and others, understand how humans form relationships with certain technologies.

In some cultures, technology plays a role in how we define our sense of self. The Indigenous peoples of Australia highly personalise their digeridoo, a musical instrument. This instrument plays an important role too in how indigenous people see themselves and their place in the universe.

Technologies also play a role in how we perceive time, our place in society and how we imagine the future. This is a major challenge for us when it comes to AI as a technology.

If you’ve spent anytime on social media channels and reading the news, you’ve no doubt seen countless tweets, TikTok and Snap videos and other content on “how to get rich with ChatGPT”, or “how to create amazing marketing content” and “ChatGPT passes the bar exam.”

The purpose of all this seemingly endless stream of banal content is actually important. This is using a part of culture to teach one another how to use a technology. We’ve long used communications and social behaviours to set the norms, behaviours, rituals and expectations around any technology. We are starting to do this now with AI at scale.

Hollywood and Science-Fiction have long played a role in how we see Artificial Intelligence. Largely, that’s been apocalyptic. Nor have many Sci-Fi novels painted a very bright future with AI. This too, shapes our perceptions of a technology, informing how we react.

Add the statements made by intellectuals and entrepreneurs about the dangers and that we need to pause AI for six months and that’s another element of fear thrown into our attempt to understand AI. Others have opposed a pause.

Another struggle our minds are having with Artificial Intelligence is how it fits into what it means to be intelligent and more so, what it means to be human. Long has AI been a future idea, the subject of literature and movies. Now, we perceive AI to be here. It is no longer an imagined future.

While Generative AI tools like ChatGPT may appear to be intelligent and that it accomplishes many things, it is only a mimicking machine. There is no AI tool in existence today that has what we currently understand as awareness, consciousness, sentience or intelligence. But it may be the role of our imagination that is key to understanding and comprehending AI.

Societally and individually, we employ a number of factors when we first encounter a technology. In Western cultures we view technologies first from a personal point of view, then societally. In many Asian and society-first cultures, a technology is first viewed through the lens of societal value, then personal value.

Societally we evaluate elements like economic opportunity, political impacts, social values, norms, traditions and behaviours and an imagined future of society. Individually, we assess personal risks, economic value, self-improvement, social status benefits/dangers and how it can help our imagined future. When you buy a game on your mobile device, you are imagining a future of being happy playing a game. We do this with all technologies in varying degrees.

An imagined future of society and self is where we have some degree of bounded rationality (our ability to process information) with regard to Artificial Intelligence. We are as yet unable to really see an imagined future society. Our first reaction, like it was to the mechanical loom at the start of the Industrial Revolution, was that many millions of jobs will be lost. Many individuals, especially those in creative roles, saw their future as gone.

Perhaps the most socially accepted AI tool in the world today is China’s Xiaoice, which says it has over 600 million users around the world, though mostly in China. This tool may be an indicator of how some forms of AI will become adopted societally in the coming years. While many users say it helps with loneliness and they feel the app is a best friend, the long term impacts are yet to be understood.

Back to the future. And this is where, I believe, the real struggle with AI rests for humans. The futures we imagine are currently confusing and contradictory and the battle between tech industry titans rushing to dominate and win versus civil society, academia and governments with a spicy dose of geopolitical sauce, makes it so hard to get our heads around it.

Generative AI is also the first time in human history that a potentially revolutionary technology has launched on a global scale. Our minds have never had to comprehend that kind of impact either.

It was quite insightful how leading thinker Jaron Lanier suggests our biggest challenge with AI isn’t that it destroys us, but that it may well drive us insane.

Many academic institutions, luminaries like Eric Shcmidt, Bill Gates and Nick Bostrom are expending great effort to get their ideas out regarding how they see humanity’s future with regard to AI. Today however, the rise of these new AI tools, being so often the subject of clickbait headlines for its dangers, is just another fright for most people.

While it may seem a massive existential, worldwide struggle is underway around AI, most people are trying to deal with inflation, uncertain economies, geopolitical strife and recovering from a pandemic that still isn’t officially over, along with disinformation and their own mental health in a topsy-turvy world.

All of this makes it even harder to understand what AI means to ourselves let alone our society. We’re simply not sure how to imagine our future with regard to AI. Over time, as always, we will adapt and our brains will figure out what AI means to us individually and as a society. This may be a bit messy on both counts while we do.

Author – Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist