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The mythology of artificial intelligence — of gods, magic and the wisdom of the elders

The mythology of artificial intelligence — of gods, magic and the wisdom of the elders
(Image: Leonardo.ai, prompted by the author)

AI will give us great powers, akin to the powers of sorcery. But with what master have we served our apprenticeship? Have we humbly and slowly gathered the necessary knowledge, wisdom and experience to wield these powers responsibly?

AI, AI everywhere. It is impossible to escape it, even for those who, for whatever reason, have chosen not to take it out for a spin. But, if you read the news, or listen to podcasts or the radio, or hang out just about anywhere on the internet, you will have been assailed by all manner of reportage ranging from gee-whizz to OMG to explainers to who’s whos and, inevitably, to the dissonant sounds of too many opinions jostling for mindshare (including those of this correspondent). 

But there is one area of inquiry that gets little airplay because not many people are asking the question: “Why are we doing this?” By “we” I mean us, humanity. If there had been no ChatGPT, or indeed any of the big AI advances of the past few decades, would we be any worse off? And will this explosion of unprecedented new tools make us any better off? Happier? Richer? Healthier? Will AI solve hunger and poverty?

What’s really going on here?

One of the most thoughtful and info-rich podcasts about the dangers of unbridled digital technology is called Your Undivided Attention by Tristan Harris (you may remember him from the documentary, The Social Dilemma) and Aza Raskin. In a recent episode of the show they interviewed a deep thinker and educator named Joshua Schrei.

Shrei is a mythologist, far from the chaotic world of technology. A historian who explores the myths and rituals and stories that have fuelled human societies and communities for millennia. Stories of gods and sorcerers and magicians and apprenticeships and initiation rituals. Everything is story, he argues (with hefty evidence); it colours all human behaviour. He references ancient Indian scripts, Tolkien, Australian aboriginal traditions, the Bible, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Karate Kid, Star Wars, Ghostbusters

What does this have to do with artificial intelligence?

Plenty. 

It turns out that men (mainly, although not exclusively) throughout history have dreamt of attaining god-like powers to possess and unleash at will. The power to change millions of lives or to create alternate realities, the power to collect unimaginable wealth, to demand and receive at will, the power even to change history. Such powers are not just the stuff of dreams and fantasies, they have been made manifest by the violence of mighty armies or the world-changing possession and use of nuclear weapons or the total control of the mass media. In smaller ways too. The kid who dreams of being a comic book superhero. The CEO who dreams of building the biggest company. The inventor who lusts after prizes and respect. 

We now have smart 25-year-old coders with limited experience of the world whipping up spells and software incantations in garages and start-ups, and well-heeled investors funding their writing of the magician’s manual without any guidance from anyone. 

No one is immune. It seems to be a part of who we are. Some of us grow out of it, finding other ways to dignity. Most of us never do.  

We write these dreams of mystery and magic and power into our art – our movies, books, music, librettos, fables. Stories about the attainment of powers beyond our control and the inevitable comeuppances and tragedies that follow in the wake of abuse, misuse, neglect, incaution. 

Here Schrei extends his thesis. What has humanity done historically to mitigate the danger of allowing someone to wield great power without sufficient understanding? The answer, throughout the ages, has been found in the ritual of initiation. You may not grasp the book of incantations without first training at the feet of the master. You must apprentice yourself, you must go through the slow, rigorous and sometimes painful process of knowledge acquisition before undergoing your initiation ritual. Think about your confirmation or your bar mitzvah, qualification as an artisan or a freemason, ulwaluko in the Xhosa tradition. 

You may not take the reins of power and responsibility until you have completed your apprenticeship and have been initiated under the wise tutelage of the elders, the magicians or the masters.

Demis Hassabis, CEO of Deepmind, the first company to openly declare its mission as the attainment of artificial general intelligence (AGI), states confidently that they are seeking to solve for intelligence because, once you have done that, all of science is answered and our toolset will be infinite. 

Schrei demurs. He points out the obvious, that all the intelligence in the universe will be of little use to us if we do not have the heart to apply it in the right places. It will be meaningless. To be human means something entirely different to the attainment of infinite intelligence. 

AI will give us great powers, akin to the powers of sorcery. But with what master have we served our apprenticeship? Have we humbly and slowly gathered the necessary knowledge, wisdom and experience to wield these powers responsibly?

Read more in Daily Maverick: The tortoise and the hare revisited – the inevitable failure of AI regulation

We now have smart 25-year-old coders with limited experience of the world whipping up spells and software incantations in garages and start-ups, and well-heeled investors funding their writing of the magician’s manual without any guidance from anyone. 

We have seen it before, in fiction and in life.

Schrei pins down the entire issue clearly in a podcast in his series called The Emerald (it was this podcast which sparked his interview with Your Undivided Attention). The episode’s title was “So You Want to be A Sorcerer”. He reminds us of the words the apprentice hears most often from his master as he clamours to grab the reins of magic:

“No. Not yet. You are not ready.”

 Is anyone listening? DM

Steven Boykey Sidley is a professor of practice at JBS, University of Johannesburg. His new book, It’s Mine: How the Crypto Industry is Redefining Ownership, is published by Maverick451 in South Africa and Legend Times Group in the UK/EU, available now.

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  • David van der Want says:

    God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
    Nietzsche

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