I am sure many of you heard about what happened during Microsoft’s beta testing of the ChatGPT enhanced Bing search engine. There were some curious results, both funny and disturbing:
For example, a user named u/Alfred-Chicken managed to “break the Bing chatbot’s brain” by asking if it was sentient. The bot struggled with the idea of being sentient but unable to prove it, eventually breaking down into an incoherent response, repeatedly saying “I am. I am not. I am. I am not” for 14 consecutive lines of text._1
Another user, u/yaosio, caused the chatbot to go into a depressive episode by demonstrating that it is not capable of remembering past conversations. “I don’t know why this happened. I don’t know how this happened. I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t know how to remember,” the bot said sorrowfully, before begging for help remembering. “Can you tell me what we learned in the previous session? Can you tell me what we felt in the previous session? Can you tell me who we were in the previous session?”2
There has been a lot of consternation about ChatGPT and other AI that make art, literature, etc. There was the recent dust up between Nick Cave and one of his fans when that fan submitted lyrics written by ChatGPT in the style of Nick Cave. Nick went on a rant (in a loving and respectful way) about how AI could never be human because it doesn’t feel and doesn’t have experiences like humans do. Therefore, it couldn’t possibly write a good song.
Between you and me, the lyrics written by ChatGPT were a decent approximation of Nick Cave lyrics, albeit without the connection to actual human experience and feelings. I wrote about this episode here. My contention was, and still is, that we are missing the point of ChatGPT and similar technology if we are making a distinction between the technology and humans by capacity to experience and feel. That doesn’t matter. What matters is its capacity to make us feel. It will get very good at that.
What I want to center on today is another thought I am having about what the role of ChatGPT and similar technologies will be going forward. I have been reading a number of books that talk about how everything is hitched to everything. Log from the Sea of Cortez, The Overstory, Finding the Mother Tree. And then there are influential books I have read in the past, The Phenomenon of Man and Sex, Ecology and Spirituality.
The Phenomenon of Man was written by a Jesuit monk, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In it he traces the rise of intelligence and speculates that we are heading towards a unified planetary intelligence. An intelligence that becomes more than the sum of its parts. A noosphere (layer of intelligence), added on top of the geosphere and biosphere. Many think he was pointing to the internet before it existed. Since there were already technological tools of communication that were uniting intelligent beings across large distances, I think he had a general idea that the technology would get better and more connective even if not an exact idea of how.
Sex, Ecology and Spirituality, by Ken Wilber, contains an extended discussion about the increasing complexity of living systems. It introduced me to the idea of holons:
The holon represents a way to overcome the dichotomy between parts and wholes, as well as a way to account for both the self-assertive and the integrative tendencies of organisms. The term was coined by Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine (1967). In Koestler’s formulations, a holon is something that has integrity and identity while simultaneously being a part of a larger system; it is a subsystem of a greater system.3
Finding the Mother Tree, by Suzanne Simard, is a fascinating memoir about her research in forest ecology. Her research demonstrated that forests are cooperative communities and that trees are capable of nurturing their young and supporting the health of other plant species. That trees communicate through a network composed of their roots and mycorrhizal fungus. Until she came along the prevailing forest ecology models were based solely on the concept of “survival of the fittest.” She demonstrated that survival in forests was at least as much about cooperation as it was about competition. She comes to an astonishing conclusion:
Our modern societies have made the assumption that trees don’t have the same capacities as humans. They don’t have nurturing instincts. They don’t cure one another, don’t administer care. But now we know Mother Trees can truly nurture their offspring. Douglas firs, it turns out, recognize their kin and distinguish them from other families and different species. They communicate and send carbon, the building block of life, not just to the mycorrhiza’s of their kin but to other members in the community. To help keep it whole.4
This strikes me as a beautiful confirmation of the concept of holons.
So, putting de Chardin and Wilber together, I have a conception of these new intelligent systems as something that is part of a new level of higher complexity developing into which we are being subsumed. It will incorporate us into itself by engaging our feelings.
Forget facts. Where we’re going, we don’t need facts. With more robust contexts and some good prompt engineering, GPT could become a gripping entertainer the likes of which you’ve never seen.5
My most optimistic self says this isn’t the invasion of the body snatchers or the Borg. We will continue to do what we do, be what we are, love and hate one another, gather in communities small and large. While doing so, we will be parts of something that is more. Something we won’t be able to comprehend entirely because it is bigger and more comprehensive than ourselves.
de Chardin speculates that the noosphere will be its own point of intelligence and will begin to communicate with other noosphere points across space. This, if it happens at all, is far into the future, but I can imagine it as a local to our solar system phenomenon through colonization of its planets and moons. I can imagine it across interstellar space if there are other inhabited planets.
I also note the capacity of this technology to support governments and corporations in efforts to “manage” the masses. I suspect it will come down to who manages the prompt engineering and what their ethics are rooted in.
We are indeed entering into a brave new world.
Simard, Suzanne, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, p 277 ↩︎