Yuval Harari is one of the loudest prophets that warn us about what is at stake with the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Whether we have realized it or not, we should notice some of the deepest questions of human meaning and values are at stake with the emergence of AI. In his recent article in the Economist, “…AI has Hacked the Operating System of Human Civilization”, Harari considers a number of possible threats including our ability to tell stories, an invasion of our intimate relationships, the creation of a world of illusions that we cannot escape, and AI as a weapon of mass destruction. None of this is false, but it rings with a tone of panic, instigated by what Harari sees as the coming to an end is human-controlled history. In Harari’s words, “What we are talking about is potentially the end of human history. Not the end of history, just the end of its human-dominated part.” Ok, but why the panic? Our ability to control the narratives about ourselves has always been dubious at best. I mean, I have never fully shaken the various reputations I have had as a child, as a teenager, through my first marriage, as a traveler, a teacher, a linguist, or as a family man. I just don’t control them.
Having lived with marginalized populations, not being able to author one’s own stories doesn’t strike me as a very new phenomenon. Napoleon said, “History is written by the winners.” And perhaps no quip captures the spirit of Imperialism better. It is the loss of imperial power that animates Harari’s article, and as the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century remind us, what is threatening is not so much the loss of imperial control, but its excessive implementation.
What animates AI is this very fear of a loss of what modern imperialism has always threatened us with, i.e. what Hannah Arendt outlined in the second section of The Origins of Totalitarianism (free book), namely, the limitless striving of power after more power and its consequence of visible rule to invisible rule. In distinction from the ancient imperialism of China and Rome which sought to acquire more land, modern imperialism employs an economic logic of unlimited expansion of profit and power at the expense of freedom. Arendt clearly outlined that the eventual loss of the sovereignty of the nation-state in the twentieth century was a consequence of the increasing dominance of economic logic in our public lives. As it turns out she was right, but if it can be imagined, she did not go far enough.
For too long, we have understood sovereign control of affairs as the same thing as freedom – and this is exactly what Harari fears with AI, especially over our ability to tell our own history. Yet, as I mentioned above, this ability has only ever resided with the powerful. As such sovereignty in our public lives has always been something of a red herring – something of an aspiration instead of a central feature of the human condition. This kind of sovereignty – which seeks to control and dominate – is not ours to lose. And Harari’s fear is much like a canceled flight on a planned vacation; it’s disappointing, but the only thing lost is our plans. Yet Harari seems still genuinely scared.
Well, what AI threatens is not so much this dominant sovereignty but is instead something much more personal: the authentic human person. Harari’s emphasis on intimacy gets closer to the truth. He writes, “In a political battle for minds and hearts, intimacy is the most efficient weapon, and AI has just gained the ability to mass-produce intimate relationships with millions of people.”
The language of ‘efficient weapon’ and ‘mass-produced intimate relationships’ is revealing. It is the language of economic rationale which, in its modern imperialistic form, always seeks efficiency and mass production. But what is lost in this case is not anything like the real intimacy of human relationships; the loss of intimacy is merely a symptom of an even greater loss. Before the Jews were exterminated in the concentration camps, the Nazis had tested out the most efficient ways of solving ‘the Jewish problem’ and began first by turning them into second-class citizens. It turns out, that before AI exterminates human intimacy, the internet has facilitated the testing out of destroying human intimacy through social media, dating apps, and its logic of increasingly isolating individuals from each other.
It turns out that what AI really threatens with its intrusion into intimacy is not history as such, but rather the authentic existence of the human person in her particularity. As I have argued elsewhere, and following Charles Taylor, what makes a particular authentic person is one who emerges out of a particular context with significant others who form her identity and who freely acts toward a common world. Intimacy acts as a microcosm of this process of identity formation. These people, our significant others, intimately constitute our identities, and our identity formation goes forward to act into the common world which is defined by its plurality. And this loss of the human individual is indeed the source of the greatest threat. Whereas Harari fears the loss of “man” as such, as represented by the loss of our ability to tell our own stories, we really ought to experience the threat of our character as particular individuals.
It turns out, that the economic rationale of limitless power (manifested in the desire for limitless social mobility and in the frustrated depression and anxiety which is the pathology of our time) is precisely manifested by Harari himself. It is this rationale to which Harari is enslaved, and such a rationale is antithetical to the truer and deeper type of freedom that is indeed threatened. It isn’t our sovereignty that AI threatens (since we never have been sovereign); it is our authenticity. AI is the demon that our contradictory understanding of freedom has unleashed.