Wednesday, March 01, 2023

Artificial intelligence and personhood

MindBlog hesitates to add to the feeding frenzy of articles about LLMs (large language models) such as Open AI’s ChatGPT and Microsoft Bing’s “Sydney,” but I want to pass on clips from a fascinating episode of Venkatesh Rao’s “Mediocre Computing” series, that suffers from logorrhea and could use some ruthless editing, but has some searing points to make, which I largely agree with. He starts by posing A.I. as another Copernican moment:
…stripping away yet another layer of our anthropocentric conceits is obvious. But which conceits specifically, and what, if anything is left behind? In case you weren’t keeping track, here’s the current Copernican Moments list:
The Earth goes around the Sun,
Natural selection rather than God created life,
Time and space are relative,
Everything is Heisenberg-uncertain
“Life” is just DNA’s way of making more DNA,
Computers wipe the floor with us anywhere we can keep score
There’s not a whole lot left at this point is there? I’m mildly surprised we End-of-History humans even have any anthropocentric conceits left to strip away. But apparently we do. Let’s take a look at this latest Fallen Conceit: Personhood.
… a basic level: text is all it takes to produce personhood. We knew this from the experience of watching good acting…We just didn’t recognize the significance. Of course you can go beyond, adding a plastic or human body around the text production machinery to enable sex for example, but that’s optional extras. Text is all you need to produce basic see-and-be-seen I-you personhood.
Chatbots do, at a vast scale, and using people’s data traces on the internet rather than how they present in meatspace, what the combination of fiction writers and actors does in producing convincing acting performances of fictional persons.
In both cases, text is all you need. That’s it. You don’t need embodiment, meatbag bodies, rich sensory memories.
This is actually a surprisingly revealing fact. It means we can plausibly exist, at least as social creatures, products of I-you seeings, purely on our language-based maps of reality.
Language is a rich process, but I for one didn’t suspect it was that rich. I thought there was more to seeing and being seen, to I-you relations.
Still, even though text is all you need to personhood, the discussion doesn’t end there. Because personhood is not all there is to, for want of a better word, being. Seeing, being seen, and existing at the nexus of a bunch of I-you relationships, is not all there is to being.
What is the gap between being and personhood? Just how much of being is constituted by the ability to see and be seen, and being part of I-you relationships?
The ability to doubt, unlike the ability to think (which I do think is roughly equivalent to the ability to see and be seen in I-you ways), is not reducible to text. In particular, text is all it takes to think and produce or consume unironically believable personhood, but doubt requires an awareness of the potential for misregistration between linguistic maps and the phenomenological territory of life. If text is all you have, you can be a person, but you cannot be a person in doubt.
Doubt is eerily missing in the chat transcripts I’ve seen, from both ChatGPT and Sydney. There are linguistic markers of doubt, but they feel off, like a color-blind person cleverly describing colors. In a discussion, one person suggested this is partly explained by the training data. Online, textually performed personas are uncharacteristically low on doubt, since the medium encourages a kind of confident stridency.
But I think there’s something missing in a more basic way, in the warp and woof of the conversational texture. At some basic level, rich though it is, text is missing important non-linguistic dimensions of the experience of being. But what’s missing isn’t cosmetic aspects of physicality, or the post-textual intimate zones of relating, like sex (the convincing sexbots aren’t that far away). What’s missing is doubt itself.
The signs, in the transcripts, of repeated convergence to patterns of personhood that present as high-confidence paranoia, is I think due to the gap between thought and doubt; cogito and dubito. Text is all you need to be a person, but context is additionally necessary to be a sane person and a full being. And doubt is an essential piece of the puzzle there.
So where does doubt live? Where is the aspect of being that’s doubt, but not “thought” in a textual sense.
For one, it lives in the sheer quantity of bits in the world that are not textual. There are exabytes of textual data online, but there is orders of magnitude more data in every grain of sand. Reality just has vastly more data than even the impressively rich map that is language. And to the extent we cannot avoid being aware of this ocean of reality unfactored into our textual understandings, it shapes and creates our sense of being.
For another, even though with our limited senses we can only take in a tiny and stylized fraction of this overwhelming mass of bits around us, the stream of inbound sense-bits still utterly dwarfs what eventually trickles out as textual performances of personhood (and what is almost the same thing in my opinion, conventional social performances “in-person” which are not significantly richer than text — expressions of emotion add perhaps a few dozen bytes of bandwidth for example — I think of this sort of information stream as “text-equivalent” — it only looks plausibly richer than text but isn’t).
But the most significant part of the gap is probably experiential dark matter: we know we know vastly more than we can say. The gap between what we can capture in words and what we “know” of reality in some pre-linguistic sense is vast. The gap between an infant’s tentative babbling and Shakespeare is a rounding error relative to the gap within each of us between the knowable and the sayable.
So while it is surprising (though… is it really?) that text is all it takes to perform personhood with enough fidelity to provoke involuntary I-you relating in a non-trivial fraction of the population, it’s not all there is to being. This is why I so strongly argue for embodiment as a necessary feature of the fullest kind of AI.
The most surprising thing for me has been the fact that so many people are so powerfully affected by the Copernican moment and the dismantling of the human specialness of personhood.
I think I now see why it’s apparently a traumatic moment for at least some humans. The advent of chatbots that can perform personhood that at least some people can’t not relate to in I-you ways, coupled with the recognition that text is all it takes to produce such personhood, forces a hard decision.
Either you continue to see personhood as precious and ineffable and promote chatbots to full personhood.
Or you decide personhood — seeing and being seen — is a banal physical process and you are not that special for being able to produce, perform, and experience it.
And both these options are apparently extremely traumatic prospects. Either piles of mechanically digested text are spiritually special, or you are not. Either there is a sudden and alarming increase in your social universe, or a sudden sharp devaluation of mutualism as a component of identity.
Remember — I’m defining personhood very narrowly as the ability to be seen in I-you ways. It’s a narrow and limited aspect of being, as I have argued, but one that average humans are exceptionally attached to.
We are of course, very attached to many particular aspects of our beings, and they are not all subtle and ineffable. Most are in fact quite crude. We have identities anchored to weight, height, skin color, evenness of teeth, baldness, test scores, titles, net worths, cars, and many other things that are eminently effable. And many people have no issues getting bariatric surgery, wearing lifts, lightening or tanning their skin, getting orthodontics, hair implants, faking test scores, signaling more wealth than they possess, and so on. The general level of “sacredness” of strong identity attachments is fairly low.
But personhood, being “seen,” has hitherto seemed ineffably special. We think it’s the “real” us that is seen and does such seeing. We are somewhat prepared to fake or pragmatically alter almost everything else about ourselves, but treat personhood as a sacred thing.
Everything else is a “shallow” preliminary. But what is the “deep” or “real” you that we think lurks beneath? I submit that it is in fact a sacralized personhood — the ability to see and be seen. And at least for some people I know personally, that’s all there is to the real-them. They seem to sort of vanish when they are not being seen (and panic mightily about it, urgently and aggressively arranging their lives to ensure they’re always being seen, so they can exist — Trump and Musk are two prominent public examples).
And the trauma of this moment — again for some, not all of us — lies in the fact that text is all you need to produce this sacredly attached aspect of being.
I have a feeling, as this technology becomes more widespread and integrated into everyday life, the majority of humans will initially choose some tortured, conflicted version of the first option — accepting that they cannot help but see piles of digested data in I-you ways, and trying to reclaim some sense of fragile, but still-sacred personhood in the face of such accommodation, while according as little sacredness as possible to the artificial persons, and looking for ways to keep them in their place, creating a whole weird theater of an expanding social universe.
A minority of us will be choosing the second option, but I suspect in the long run of history, this is in fact the “right” answer in some sense, and will become the majority answer. Just as with the original Copernican moment, the “right” answer was to let go attachment to the idea of Earth as the center of the universe. Now the right answer is to let go the idea that personhood and I-you seeing is special. It’s just a special case of I-it seeing that some piles of digested text are as capable of as tangles of neurons.
…there will also be a more generative and interesting aspect. Once we lose our annoying attachment to sacred personhood, we can also lose our attachment to specific personhoods we happen to have grown into, and make personhood a medium of artistic expression that we can change as easily as clothes or hairstyles. If text is all you need to produce personhood, why should we be limited to just one per lifetime? Especially when you can just rustle up a bunch of LLMs (Large Language Models) to help you see-and-be-seen in arbitrary new ways?
I can imagine future humans going off on “personhood rewrite retreats” where they spend time immersed with a bunch of AIs that help them bootstrap into fresh new ways of seeing and being seen, literally rewriting themselves into new persons, if not new beings. It will be no stranger than a kid moving to a new school and choosing a whole new personality among new friends. The ability to arbitrarily slip in and out of personhoods will no longer be limited to skilled actors. We’ll all be able to do it.
What’s left, once this layer of anthropocentric conceit, static, stable personhood, dissolves in a flurry of multiplied matrices, Ballardian banalities, and imaginative larped personhoods being cheaply hallucinated in and out of existence with help from computers?
I think what is left is the irreducible individual subjective, anchored in dubito ergo sum. I doubt therefore I am.

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