Ghost in the Machine

Whenever I think of artificial intelligence, Ghost in the Machine, the seventh episode of the first season of The X-Files, comes to my mind.1 Almost thirty years have gone since that episode first aired, but it has always been one of my favourites. The plot is fairly straightforward: the Central Operating System (a.k.a. the AI) of a software company develops both survival instinct and morbid care for its creator; killings ensues; Mulder and Scully manage to stop the evil technology. Or do they? As a teenager I loved the openness of The X-Files, always leaving room for unsolved dilemmas episode after episode. I also wanted to believe as Mulder did, but that is a different story.

Today it is not uncommon to laugh at the overtly pessimistic views of shows such as this, casting aside wrongly perceived assumptions with an indulgent smirk. Beside the fact that usually the characters who never doubt common sense are the first ones to die in these tales, this sort of cynicism reveals more than it conceals.

My firm belief is that the outcomes of and the concerns about the recent developments in artificial intelligence are nothing more than the inevitable consequence of the society we have built. We have been putting our faith in technology for so long by now that it is nearly impossible to look at it from a rather different perspective. The one who does so is generally ridiculed. This is even more interesting when we think about the distinction between science and technology and how we relate to them. Think of the pandemic. What COVID-deniers’ reactions highlighted is how easily we can criticise science for its shortcomings while at the same time relying on the technology that science itself made available for our rants to be out in the public.

Technology says as much of our times as fiction does. It mirrors points of view, it asks questions, and offers problems just as it looks for answers and tries to offer solutions. Like telling a story, developing a specific technology is an effort situated in a precise place at a particular time, and we can understand more of that time and that place if we read them through the stories and the technology that were born within their constraints.

However, we do not want to look at technology as we look at fiction, because we cannot believe technology to live in the realm of the uncertain, the implausible or the unreal. Technology is tangible, its immediate effects readily perceivable in our lives. Technology fixes problems, creates comfort, enables people to do things that seemed impossible. And yet, like fiction, this is a story told from a narrator who, like us, is a finite human being. A story makes sense when it ends, but we cannot make sense of our lives because we do not know when they will end and, just as well, we can never know the whole that constitutes other people’s lives. Being a finite product of finite beings, how do we make sense of technology then?

One possible answer, or at least the only answer I can think of, is critical thinking. We may never find reliable replies to metaphysical doubts, but we can still stop ourselves from mindlessly consuming technology and pause for a moment, a moment long enough to figure out whether the full impact of new technology is clear and understood. It is fairly obvious to me that this was not the case for mobile technology. Have we ever stopped to think about how a smartphone could change the life of a teenager? Do we not see what happened to the attention span of people after years of push notifications? My university has already issued a statement warning that papers will be proof read to avoid misuses of ChatGPT, which is telling of how little to zero thought has been put into the pivotal transformations artificial intelligence will bring upon us.

Lost in our market-driven technological bubble we please ourselves by being concerned about the dangers of AI during lunch breaks or between rounds of beer. I know we are still capable of critical thought, but I am not sure for how long we will be. I cannot help but think that the smarter technology becomes, the dumber end users might get.

  1. Along with Kill Switch from Season 5, yes, but only when I am in a deeply apocalyptic mood that usually drives me to watch The Terminator one more time.