AI and the abolition of man | WORLD
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AI and the abolition of man

New technology and deconstructive schools may lead to a manipulated and frustrated populace

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AI and the abolition of man
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In the 1975 Norman Jewison film Rollerball, James Caan plays a futuristic world’s most famous athlete, known as Jonathan E. After yet another dominant performance in the arena, Jonathan receives a visit from the executive who runs the team and is part of a world oligarchy of sorts. The elderly man informs him that this season should be his last and that plans are being made to honor him in retirement. The problem is that Jonathan is still at the top of his game and does not want to retire. In addition, he is still resentful that during his younger days, another executive claimed his wife.

Because of a combination of his grievance of a lost wife and his love of the brutal sport of rollerball, Jonathan resists retirement and instead wants to learn more about the corporate oligarchy that threatens him. He travels to a central corporate information center where he intends to do some research. His inquiry about books is fruitless as they have been replaced with electronic summaries. Determined, he speaks with the programmer who directs questions to the ultimate source, which is a liquid computer. The programmer wants to help in light of Jonathan’s great celebrity but is not able to get real answers from the machine when it comes to simple questions about how the corporate oligarchy arose and how its decisions are made. Somewhat chagrined, the human being who works with the computer confesses that recently the whole of the 13th century disappeared.

As our current artificial intelligence revolution unfolds, the viewer of Rollerball (or whatever other dystopia comes to mind) cannot help but get the uneasy feeling that we’ve seen this movie before. The AI image generation machines produce depictions of historical figures (such as Vikings) that do not resemble the real people. At the same time, it appears to be clear that a politically correct sort of orthodoxy is regulating the responses of the AI machines to various inquiries. The clear implication is that those who program AI occupy a sort of master editor status with regard to the information of the world. While some of their efforts produce results that seem ridiculous to us, the friction will be much lower a hundred years from now with increasing historical illiteracy accompanied by elevated levels of acceptance of information delivered by artificial intelligence.

Lewis described the awful prospect of boys raised into “urban blockheads” or more famously, “men without chests.”

I can recall sitting in a computer lab at the University of Georgia over 30 years ago. It was not long after the fall of the Soviet Union. I observed something I hadn’t seen before on the screen of the student sitting next to me. He was engaged in a rudimentary form of messaging. Though I shouldn’t have been trying to read what he was writing, I saw that he and his discussion partner were talking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I was thunderstruck by the significance of what was happening. Large parts of the world were escaping the suffocating control of totalitarian governments. As I watched these two people separated by some great distance talking about the resurrection, I thought I was watching a kind of final flowering of freedom beyond the reach of dictators and oligarchs.

I realize now that I was wrong. The struggle is never really over. As we look back at the two great dystopias, 1984 and Brave New World, we have come to realize that the second book was far more prophetic. The danger is less that of the boot crushing a man’s face forever, as 1984 described, and more that we will be lured into absolute control via the use of entertainment and pharmaceuticals.

This contrast between the two books has become commonplace, but there is a third volume that should be added, which is C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Lewis wrote with a kind of controlled outrage at the deconstructive posturings of the “two young schoolmasters” who sought to infect the minds of children with their cynical view of those things we might call sublime, romantic, or brave. Seeking to protect our conception of what it means to be human, Lewis described the awful prospect of boys raised into “urban blockheads” or more famously, “men without chests.” Lewis saw this change as the agenda of elite conditioners who would treat humanity like clay.

We may laugh at the silliness of artificial intelligence engines that generate Asian Vikings and African stormtroopers, but these things are risible to us only because we have sufficient context and knowledge to know better. As information increasingly moves from analog to electronic, we may find ourselves more like the frustrated Jonathan E of Rollerball who wakes up enough to know that he is being manipulated, but has no real way to find out why or how. Like the 13th century that simply disappeared in Rollerball, our own times may, indeed, be easy to lose.

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the provost and dean of faculty at North Greenville University in South Carolina. He is the author of The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student's Guide, and The System Has a Soul. His work has appeared in a wide variety of other books and journals. He is formally affiliated with Touchstone, the Journal of Markets and Morality, the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, and the Land Center at Southwestern Seminary.

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