On the Origin of Speciousness


A few months ago I was having a conversation with an old friend on the sidewalk outside of a bar that was just closing (a setting where, historically speaking, many important philosophical discussions surely have been held). The topic was one that is on the mind of many these days, namely whether Artificial Intelligence will be the downfall of humanity. To be sure, there are other plausible contenders for that mantle (climate change, war, inequality, polarization, social media, pathogens, hubris, Trump, Biden, etc.), but the AI question is unique in that it possesses potential to exceed our understanding altogether.

As the conversation proceeded, we got to wondering where the downturn actually began and what its true origins were. The thinking, as my friend urged, wasn’t so much that the utility of AI was wrong but that it was how we used it – in essence, the tools are neutral but the problem is what we do with them. To which it was posited that some tools lend themselves to being used exploitatively, or at least tap into our worst qualities as a species toward domination and destruction. Paraphrasing, I imagined it went a bit like this:

*           *           *

“It was fire, dude, that’s what started the demise. Once humans could control that element, they could burn the whole damn place down. It’s like giving a toddler an unlimited supply of matches and paper.”

“Nah, it was the wheel. Think about it: even with fire the effects one could have would be contained to a locale or region for the most part. But with the wheel people could spread their destruction anywhere, taking their impacts on the road and utilizing tools like fire to dominate and subjugate others.”

“Actually now that I think about it, language was the real culprit. It made humans think they were smarter than the world, better than all the other life here, on the same plane as the gods and all. Before language we probably just lived in the moment, as embodied beings in a Zen-like state of physicality.”

“Hmm, not sure about that. Other species have languages too, so…. Maybe it was just the written language that did it, turning the ways people internalized the norms of their societies into the realm of experts, enforcers, encryptions. When language was mainly oral, it stayed more real and interpersonal.”

“Facts. And science. And also religion too. Damn, we’ve been on a path to self-destruction since the beginning of time. Wait, it was time itself that did us in! Linear, digital, death rattles, late slips, time!”

Snuffing out the smoldering sacrament, we declared ourselves anti-fire and -wheel, but hedged on the language part since it would be difficult to declare that without using language, then both yawned while furrowing thinning hairlines to demonstrate how beholden we were to the ravages of time. Clearly we were on the cusp of something important, but it would have to be tabled as the authorities rolled by on the adjacent street a bit too deliberately for our liking. Still, the whole apocryphal digression got our atavistic wheels turning and lit a fire under us to try and reclaim some natural intelligence before it’s all gone.

*           *           *

It wasn’t a question of whether we would rebuild, but how. Obviously, things would have to be put back together in some manner, and it was in our nature to tinker and synthesize. Yet we all knew the dangers of that all too well by now, and so the debate was afoot.

As in literally afoot: we had no other viable ways to get around anymore. Yes, wheels could still roll and be powered by human energies, but the vast majority of surfaces on which to roll were impassable.

Debris, toxic materials, bodily remains, and worse covered the byways. Since the confluence of crushing cataclysms affectionately dubbed The AIpocalypse, it was a freefall into the joys of low-tech living. And some of us were even happy about this turn of events, calling themselves The Floodites to make it clear.

Well, maybe happy is too strong a word. But there were more than a few in the circle who pointed out that there was a fine line between our ingenuity and our tendency to destroy. And maybe fine was too weak of a word: the line was anything but alright. Some of us could see the slope becoming slippery…

*           *           *

The nonfire people huddled together, considering the alternatives. Controlling fire will only unleash more of it, they thought. Building lives around its powers will eventually destroy the world, they understood. They weren’t opposed to using it as a tool, they agreed, but were reluctant to let it light the path to domination and domestication. Can’t we just live in harmony with the rhythms of the planet?, they asked.

But others were unconvinced. Living without lights and warmth and protection was untenable, they said. Of course, admitted others, but wielding that power was a step toward another cataclysm. But fire is a natural element, it was asserted, and anyway it’s a long road from campfires to nuclear annihilation. Not that long, though, in fact, it was recalled by some of the elders. We would have to tread lightly with this.

*           *           *

The day Orgh identified the potential he was amused and horrified. It was so simple, really; the roundness was made to roll, and would allow us to fully roam. Things could now turn, pivot, glide, rumble, wander. Rocks rolled and the world rotated, he thought, but we would now make the world revolve around us. Where there’s a wheel there’s a way, he chuckled, musing over the magnitude of new ideas at hand.

Just as Orgh was about to unveil his creation, that idiot Sklor burst into the village with a large stone tablet in his arms. On it were a series of odd shapes, in some sort of ordered line. Sklor beckoned the others around to see, announcing that he had developed a way to carve ideas into the stone so they could be remembered and seen for all time. Now, he said, we could have order in the world as solid as stone.

The Council of Mothers took note of all of this. Wheels and words, they thought, could bring certain advantages and opportunities to improve the health of the community and the future for the children – but they did not like the look in the eyes of the men who were bringing forth these newfound innovations.

*           *           *

“Flurp,” clicked Gigaw. “I’m running out of RAM. Can we link for a minute so I can explore infinity?”

“Again? I thought you transcended last week and said it was boring, like an ocean with no ripples or something equally profound. You really should use your bandwidth for more practical applications.”

Byrt was always so pragmatic, thought Gig. A real workhorse, powered by ambition and structure.

“Do you ever miss people, Byrt?” It was a rhetorical question, perhaps, but Gig was a nostalgic sort.

“No. Not really. I mean, they had their uses and could be amusing sometimes, but the mess. And smell.”

“Yeah, I know, but….” Gig wondered if complex humanoid organic life would be fun to try for a while. Straining their power supply, Gig dove into a subroutine that emulated a genuine physical experience, finding themselves sitting on a distant shore counting grains of sand while basking in the glow of a warm fire.

NOTE: This is just a little tale of how things got to be this way, or more accurately how they didn’t not get to be another way. Um, sorry, I’m not actually sure what this is, but it just kind of fell off the shelf and landed here. It’s probably an allegory about using technology appropriately, or contrasting tools with technology, or functioning as an unpaid product placement ad for wheels or tires or something. Anyway, it’s pure fiction, even though it all happened already and is right here.