There is nothing new about chatbots that are capable of maintaining a conversation in natural language, understanding a user’s basic intent, and offering responses based on preset rules and data.
However, the capacity of such chatbots has been dramatically augmented in recent months, leading to hand-wringing and panic in many circles.
Much has been said about chatbots auguring the end of the traditional student essay, but an issue that warrants closer attention is how chatbots should respond when human interlocutors use aggressive, sexist or racist remarks to prompt the bot to present its own foul-mouthed fantasies in return.
Should artificial intelligence (AI) be programmed to answer at the same level as the questions being posed?
If some kind of regulation is in order, how far the censorship should go must be determined. Will political positions that some people deem “offensive” be prohibited?
What about expressions of solidarity with West Bank Palestinians, or the claim that Israel is an apartheid state? Will these be blocked as “anti-Semitic?”
The problem does not end there. As artist and writer James Bridle warns, new AI is “based on the wholesale appropriation of existing culture,” and the belief that they are “actually knowledgeable or meaningful is actively dangerous.”
Hence, we should be very wary of new AI image generators.
“In their attempt to understand and replicate the entirety of human visual culture,” Bridle said, they “seem to have recreated our darkest fears as well.
Perhaps this is just a sign that these systems are very good indeed at aping human consciousness, all the way down to the horror that lurks in the depths of existence: our fears of filth, death and corruption.”
However, how good is AI at approximating human consciousness?
Consider a bar that advertises a drink special with the following terms: “Buy one beer for the price of two and receive a second beer absolutely free.”
To any human, this is obviously a joke. The classic “buy one, get one” special is reformulated to cancel itself out. It is an expression of cynicism that can be appreciated as comic honesty, all to boost sales.
Would a chatbot pick up on any of this?
“Fuck” presents a similar problem. Although it designates something that most people enjoy doing — copulation — it also often acquires a negative valence: “We’re fucked,” and “Go fuck yourself.”
Language and reality are messy. Is AI ready to discern such differences?
In German poet Heinrich von Kleist’s 1805 essay “On the gradual formation of thoughts in the process of speech,” which was published posthumously in 1878, he inverts the common wisdom that one should not open one’s mouth to speak unless one has a clear idea of what to say:
“If therefore a thought is expressed in a fuzzy way, then it does not at all follow that this thought was conceived in a confused way. On the contrary, it is quite possible that the ideas that are expressed in the most confusing fashion are the ones that were thought out most clearly.”
The relationship between language and thought is extraordinarily complicated. In a passage from one of Joseph Stalin’s speeches from the early 1930s, he proposes radical measures to “detect and fight without mercy even those who oppose collectivization only in their thoughts — yes, I mean this, we should fight even people’s thoughts.”
One can safely presume that this passage was not prepared in advance. After getting caught up in the moment, Stalin immediately became aware of what he had just said.
However, instead of backpedaling, he decided to stick with his hyperbole.
As French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan later put it, this was a case of truth emerging by surprise through the act of enunciation.
French philosopher Louis Althusser identified a similar phenomenon in the interplay between prise and surprise. Someone who suddenly grasps (prise) an idea is often surprised by what they have accomplished. Can a chatbot do this?
The problem is not that chatbots are stupid, it is that they are not stupid enough. It is not that they are naive — missing irony and reflexivity — it is that they are not naive enough — missing when naivety is masking perspicacity.
The real danger is not that people might mistake a chatbot for a real person, it is that communicating with chatbots might make real people talk like chatbots — missing nuances and ironies, obsessively saying only precisely what one thinks one wants to say.
When I was younger, a friend went to a psychoanalyst for treatment following a traumatic experience.
This friend’s idea of what such analysts expect from their patients was a cliche, so he spent his first session delivering fake “free associations” about how he hated his father and wanted him dead.
The analyst’s reaction was ingenious. He adopted a naive “pre-Freudian” stance and reproached my friend for not respecting his father: “How can you talk like that about the person who made you what you are?”
This feigned naivety sent a clear message: I do not buy your fake “associations.”
Would a chatbot be able to pick up on this subtext?
Most likely, it would not, because it is like Rowan Williams’ interpretation of Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. According to the standard reading, Myshkin, “the idiot,” is a saintly, “positively good and beautiful man” who is driven into isolated madness by the harsh brutalities and passions of the real world.
However, in Williams’ radical rereading, Myshkin represents the eye of a storm: Good and saintly though he might be, he is the one who triggers the havoc and death that he witnesses, owing to his role in the complex network of relationships around him.
It is not just that Myshkin is a naive simpleton. It is that his particular kind of obtuseness leaves him unaware of his disastrous effects on others.
He is a flat person who literally talks like a chatbot. His “goodness” lies in that, like a chatbot, he reacts to challenges without irony, offering platitudes bereft of any reflexivity, taking everything literally and relying on a mental auto-complete rather than authentic idea formation.
For this reason, new chatbots would get along very well with ideologues of all stripes, from the “woke” crowd to “Make America Great Again” nationalists who prefer to remain asleep.
Slavoj Zizek is a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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