March 2023

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi

Michael Bettencourt | Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt

Fact of the Week: As abstract as algebra may seem, it was invented to solve the practical math problems of the 9th century. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was an astronomer in Baghdad. He wanted to figure out fair ways to distribute land, salaries, and inheritance.

In the process, he invented algebra, which comes from the Arabic word al-jabr – roughly translating to "reunion of broken parts." In his book The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, he described methods for reducing and then balancing equations.

Also fun fact: the word algorithm comes from a Latinization of al-Khwarizmi's name.

Which brings us to ChatGPT, the modern algebra designed to reunite the broken parts of human intelligence into a smooth balance of equations that provides our benighted species with algorithmic truth and purpose.

Yes, I have taken a bite of the devil's apple and toyed with ChatGPT. I had a modest goal, based on my work at a Jewish university writing solicitation letters and emails to raise money. I gave it the prompt of writing a direct mail piece encouraging people to become monthly donors, using whatever aspect of the Jewish faith it could to make the argument, with a specific mention of Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the first day of a month that includes Pesach and is a time of transformation and joy.

I won't bore you with the actual contents of the letter, but I have to say I was impressed by what it banged out. Of course, writing solicitations is not a heavy lift, and I am sure that ChatGPT's training included devouring hundreds of thousands of these kinds of donor texts, which, after all, really do have a short menu of boilerplate to choose from: how many different ways can you say "support" and "gift" and "thank you" and "generosity"?

Still, with a few modifications to make it more university-specific, I could have submitted this to my bosses and gotten their approval. And clawed back a few hours of precious earthtime for myself.

(A good summary of ChatGPT's history and the whole universe of AI chatbots can be found in "The inside story of ChatGPT: How OpenAI founder Sam Altman built the world's hottest technology with billions from Microsoft" in Fortune, Jan. 25, 2023.)

The temptation, of course, after the first success is to have a second success and thus slide whoopingly down the slippery slope, which is why so many members of the creative class are scared to death that they may become superfluous in the Marxian sense, thrown into the dustbin of history and the unemployment line by a technology that, when it works well, sees patterns in data the human brain cannot see, creates art that exceeds even the psychedelic blooms of psylocibin (see the recent presentation of "Unsupervised" by Refik Amadol at the Museum of Modern Art), and generates language full of beauty, ambiguity and insight.

That is, when it works well. Because, and no one should be shocked by this, it does not always work well. It is, after all, trained on the brain droppings of the human animal and thus full of the animosities, biases and hallucinations that are the trademark of the species. (In fact, when ChatGPT produces something that is completely wrong factually and makes up false citations to support the lies, it is said by its creators to be "hallucinating.")

And when it works, well or not, the algorithm does what it does without any idea of what it is doing and why it is doing it because it lacks (and this may be impossible to code in) the context given by that subjective experience we otherwise know as consciousness.

This conflict between astounding consciousness-resembling output from a zombie consciousnessless programming is one of the throughlines of Meghan O'Gieblyn's God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning. She struggles on several fronts to suss out what it means for humans to create machines that they do not understand the workings of and then submit themselves to the machines' judgments. Along the way, she examines the dangers of metaphorical descriptions turning into literal descriptions and thus hardening into truths that aren't true, the challenges to the reality of reality posed by quantum mechanics, and David Chalmer's "hard problem" of consciousness when looking at a hive of bees or Sony's robot dog, Aibo.

But she has another, deeper, throughline here, based on her upbringing as an evangelical Christian and her eventual loss of faith in John Calvin's God. Early in the book, she muses that in our age today "all the eternal questions have become engineering problems," (8) and she traces in such disparate efforts as Ray Kurzweil's transhuman singularity, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere, Nick Bostrom's notion that we are living in a simulation, the multiple physicists who posit the theory of multiple universes the same search that she underwent in her Christian education: for the thing, the engineering, the design, that transforms the contingent, the accidental, the precarious, the unreliable into the certain, the understandable, the comprehensive, the one-size-fits-all.

Again and again, she finds the people she interviews and reads about reiterating this most ancient of philosophical and religious quests for unity and clarity, employing whatever metaphors that come to hand to stitch together the disparate and isolated parts of ourselves into an algorithm that comforts and soothes. She is also quite aware, because of the "disenchantment" she suffered when she lost her faith, that the hunger for the unified can lead us into destructive self-deceptions, believing what we want to believe because we want to believe it, with the result that we forget the brute fact of our mortality and that we are killing the very planet that we need to survive.

For O'Gieblyn, the danger is less that we will engineer something into consciousness but more that we will wishfully think ourselves into believing we have created such a thing when we most likely have not and then rely upon it in a way that abandons our struggle as humans to bring into being the ethical, moral, social, political and economic worlds we need to survive and prosper. When God has foreordained our fates – when the algorithm, like the computer Deep Thought in A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, pronounces that it has figured out the meaning of life, the universe and everything – why fight the good fight against entropy in the name of beauty and justice?

By the time thinking human beings have reached this point, they will be enveloped in a swirl of murky science and noisy hype, fuzzy math and pundit frenzy. But there is a light that cuts through this fog, provided by Dan McQuillan in a piece in Motherboard titled "ChatGPT Is a Bullshit Generator Waging Class War," with the subhead, "ChatGPT isn't really new but simply an iteration of the class war that's been waged since the start of the industrial revolution." (Feb. 9, 2023)

Of course, he is right, and I am a bit ashamed that I had forgotten, in my tooling around the ChatGPT universe, my Luddite inclinations. (For a great history of Luddite thought and action, check out Gavin Mueller's Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job.) Microsoft's investment of $13 billion in OpenAI, the company that created ChatGPT (and other popular AI programs), and its coming insertion of AI into its Bing search engine, not to mention the lucrative (for Microsoft) deal it drafted with OpenAI about the percent of the company's profits it will siphon off over the coming years, is done because it makes capitalist sense to hijack technology for profitable ends and foist it on the public rather than create technologies that improve the lives of ordinary people and that they may actually want.

McQuillan's article (and his book, Resisting AI - An Anti-fascist Approach to Artificial Intelligence) is an urgent reminder of how easy it is to forget, in the gee-whizzery that surrounds the introduction of products like ChatGPT, the ideology driving these developments, the ideology that always strives to reduce labor costs by striking off the bodies of workers, maintain a bulwark against creativity that might challenge their control (i.e., patents, trademarks, copyrights) and extract resources (like personal data, like cobalt) as cheaply as possible without have to pay for the externalities that the extraction causes.

Just one example of how the supposed magic of AI is anchored in the skin and bones of actual people: another Motherboard article details how "OpenAI Used Kenyan Workers Making $2 an Hour to Filter Traumatic Content from ChatGPT/Despite their integral role in building ChatGPT, the workers faced grueling conditions and low pay" by Chloe Xiang (Jan. 18, 2023). Ghost workers and the human cloud, not some consciousness emerging from silicon and transistors, is the backbone upon which the extractive ideology rests. (For a great investigation of this, see Mary L. Gray and Siddarth Suri, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass.)

McQuillan reminds us, forcefully, that AI is an "apparatus" created and deployed by a "layered and interdependent arrangement of technology, institutions and ideology" whose operations always default to the violence and austerity needed to preserve the existing arrangements of power and profit, nominally democratic at the moment but increasingly on the verge of turning anti-authoritarian or fully fascistic.

This is why McQuillan terms his resistance "anti-fascist" because he roots in it in such practices as horizontal decision-making, mutual aid and workers councils as well as ideas about socially useful production, solidarity economies and the importance of the commons and the role of "commoning" in "the transformation of techno-social systems."

I think McQuillan is correct when he advises us not to get caught up in medieval-style scholastic discussions about whether intricate mathematical calculations can be likened to human intelligence, the techno version of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Instead, the next time ChatGPT spits out a response to a prompt, we need to think of that result like the appearance of a mushroom, which is always the visible fruiting of a vast invisible mycelium network driven by energy sources and organisms dedicated to self-preservation and engaged in a fierce war of selection and exclusion.

Let's have Ned Ludd enter the next ChatGPT prompt as "Detail a plan by which you engage in your own self-destruction in the style of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta" and then sing out lustily as we free the earth from this newest technological pestilence.


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Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate"
and wife, Mar铆a-Beatriz.
For more of his columns, articles, and media,
check the Archives.

©2023 Michael Bettencourt
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




and creates



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