This comes from a conversation I cannot stop myself from having time and time again.
Every person who has thought about the future; every philosopher who has considered what it means “to think” in an era with complex computers; every student of computer science; every reader of science fiction; they all have their own definition of how to discern “true” artificial intelligence. We trade out notions every time it comes up. A friend and I recently got into a talk about how it was the desire to create, the notion of “art for art’s sake” that could distinguish a realized AI from an imitator. His source was something that Bill Nye had said.
I shared his idea, with a nuanced angle. My source was something I once read in a book by a respectively (in comparison to his own contemporaries and Bill Nye,) unknown philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard. In his book, The Inhuman, Lyotard states:
The unthought hurts because we’re comfortable in what’s already thought. And thinking, which is accepting this discomfort, is also, to put it bluntly, an attempt at having it done with. That’s the hope sustaining all writing: that at the end, things will be better. As there is no end, this hope is illusory. So: the unthought would have to make your machines uncomfortable, the uninscribed that remains to be inscribed would have to make their memory suffer. Do you see what I mean? Otherwise, why would they ever start thinking?
His point is that creative efforts are painful ones, and that these efforts cannot conclude. It is the sense of discomfort and doubt that comes from an eternally unfinished project that will remain the last barrier between Artificial and Human thought. The broader context, this chapter, is called Can Thought go on without a Body? and deals with the idea of creating a “human” conscious mind that would persist after the heat death of our solar system. That is the framework necessary to tease out these ideas on what makes something truly human. The work itself does not go into, nor concern itself with, the details of how our solar system dies, where the remnant thought must go and resettle or whatever– the future of our consciousness– only that it persist in some manner that is assumed to be “post-human.”
Now, what is the point of this? It is to frame a discussion over what truly makes up human thought, by virtue of framing the question around a hypothetical perfect AI. His point is not the AI itself, but what it says about us, about humans, in what we would truly have to do to make something in our image. Making a “perfect” brain, according to our definition of flaws would not do our reality justice, as humans. The true mark of perfection would be to create a literal human mind, with all the capacity for fear, doubt, pain, suffering, existential query, and so on– all things necessary to, or byproduct of the process of human thought. Anything less would simply be advanced computation.
His belief was that the constructed “human mind” would have to suffer from the affliction of knowing creativity is never over. This is the thread that interests me the most, as a writer.
We, as people, as writers, accept that we cannot write the perfect book. We have no concept of perfection. An AI that is too simple to be human would. The AI would run into a wall of objective metrics. It would write what it considers the absolute book that touches on everything every book ever has, given enough data. A neural network could smooth out innumerable variables and claim to have created the Last Book.
Artists suffer from knowing that they cannot reach this perfection, but they do not shy away from it. Even if an artists claims that do not seek perfection and they are fine with flaws, they still strive towards a specific vision. We still want to give the most “correct” form of something to the world that we can give– as though there were a “correct” way for something to exist, preemptive of itself.
One one level, I would dare to say that not only is creativity a sign of intelligence, but that it is our proof of existence. Though, I do not intend to disparage those who consider themselves “non-creative” sorts. Creative efforts are what define us as people. “Mon-creative” types still make mosaics in their lives by showcasing the things they love, the art, the music, the poetry they love. They don’t have to make it to be human in that way. By extension, preference for preference’s sake is creativity. Sure, we have psychology often trying to explain certain preferences as biological imperatives, like the color green and the soothing affect of blues compared to reds, but just as often as we find someone who fits there paradigms, we find someone who doesn’t. But that is another topic, almost entirely.
It would be easy, and quite understandable, to say that Lyotard’s view is bleak, perhaps myopic, in saying that “the hope sustaining all writing… is illusory,” but I think that is a rather freeing concept to understand. It’s not a damnation of our efforts thus far, or of those to come. It’s an acknowledgement that we, as people, are free of the tyranny of perfection that would stalk the minds of our artificial counterparts. Imagine, if possible, a world where art were…over. Not eradicated violently, not set back thousands of years via destruction, not just hopelessly stagnant, but done– shelved away, complete, that the canon concluded and we were somehow satisfied with what we had. Think of how incapable of boredom we would have to be to live in such a world. Think of how simple our brains would need to be to sustain that.