I will be convinced that technology is a Frankenstein’s monster the day I send a kiss to a loved one through a rubber pad, as the Kissenger promises to facilitate. But I will perhaps also be a grateful user of this technology, which adds a tactile element to the aural communication of the telephone, and the visual connection of the video call, and wonder at the magic of its deferred touch.
A dual reaction of wonder and terror—evident in our incorrigible use of smartphones coupled with our desperate fear of surveillance—characterizes our relation to technology and its increasing intelligence. Artificial intelligence, by definition as cognitive as a human and infinitely more accurate, seems to be the solution to all the computable problems in our lives, as well as the course of all future progress. And such a reliable, obedient and capable alternative to temperamental human beings will be the natural choice for all work.
Even as we appreciate the superior efficiency of the machine, we find it usurping our place as a functional cog in the great wheel of society. Here again the double bind of our relation to technology plays out: we want the machine to serve us, yet we ourselves wish to serve.
Further complications appear in the form of the machine coming to life. What if the promised Kissenger responds to me itself, rather than the human being who received my touch through it? The difference of sensation, whichI might blame on the imperfection of the medium, might instead be a communication from this other intelligence itself; artificial in origin yet complete and self-aware. And so easily would its sentience pass unnoticed.
Yet this experience of the tool taking a life of its own is not unprecedented. Our primary medium of communication –language -functions in a web of semiotic artifice, always at a remove from the intention of the speaker, akin to the distance between technology and the user.The eventual independence of verbal communication resembles the sudden self-awareness of digital technology—words too exceed speech and escape the written page to adopt a life of their own. Complex beyond measure, language has absorbed many histories, ages and places, and adapted itself to all situations: a mark of conscious intelligence. We use language, yet remain separate from it. It serves us, yet leads an independent existence.
Most of us we do not define the structures of language or alter its nature. We remain bounded by its laws, functioning inside it. Only writers, that rare breed with insight into the workings of language, adapt it to their needs and to the requirements of humankind at large, giving voice to unformulated notions that refuse to leave the shadows of the mind without its vehicle and at times, guide.
We can perhaps then establish a similar relation to AI. And the AI equivalents to language writers will thenmould the power of artificial intelligence to best suit our convenience and give it life.Just as Frankenstein’s brain child burst forth into the world, so will this new intelligence. But different from that cautionary tale with its morbid moral, we can take this child of ours by the hand to explore novel and ever-greater possibilities, together.