Hitting the Books: Is the hunt for technological supremacy harming our collective humanity?

It's the dawning of the age of Homo Faber.

shulz via Getty Images

Stand aside humanity, you're holding up the progress. We've passed the point of usefulness for Homo sapiens, now is the dawning of the Homo Faber era. The idea that "I think therefore I am" has become quaint in this new age of builders and creators. But has our continued obsession with technology and progress actually managed to instead set back our capacity for humanity?

In his new book, The Myth of Artificial Intelligence: Why Computers Can't Think the Way We Do, author and pioneering researcher in the field of natural language processing, Erik J Larson, investigates the efforts to build computers that process information like we do and why we're much farther away from having human-equivalent AIs than most futurists would care to admit.

Belknap Press

Excerpted from The Myth of Artificial Intelligence: Why Computers Can't Think the Way We Do by Erik J Larson, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2021 by Erik J. Larson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Technoscience triumphed in the twentieth century but skeptical responses to it continued, as well. Hannah Arendt, the philosopher made famous by her phrase “the banality of evil,” in reference to the Nazi Nuremberg trials, argued that Comte’s technoscience — which, by the middle of the twentieth century, certainly had not lost any steam as a philosophical idea — amounted to no less than a redefinition of human nature itself. Arendt pointed to the classical understanding of humans as Homo sapiens — literally, wise man — and to the historical focus on wisdom and knowledge rather than technical skill, and argued that to embrace technoscience as a worldview was to redefine ourselves as Homo faber — man the builder.

Homo faber, in Greek terms, is a person who believes that techne — knowledge of craft or making things, the root of technology — defines who we are. The faberian understanding of human nature fits perfectly not only with Comte’s nineteenth-century idea of a utopian technoscience but with the twentieth-century obsession with building more and more powerful technologies, culminating in the grand project of, in effect, building ourselves—artificial intelligence. This project would not make sense if the traditional notions of the meaning of humanity had remained intact.

Arendt argued that the seismic change from wisdom and knowledge to technology and building represented a limiting and potentially dangerous understanding of ourselves, which would guarantee not only that technological development would continue unbridled, but that increasingly we would view technological successes as meaningful statements about ourselves. We were, in other words, reducing our own worth in order to increase, beyond wise or reasonable measure, our estimation of the marvels that could be built with the tools of technoscience.

Von Neumann’s initially cryptic comments about approaching a “singularity” as technological advances accelerate become more clear in light of his contemporary Arendt’s position. Though Von Neumann, a scientist and mathematician, did not (as far as we know) further explain his remarks, they perfectly reflect Arendt’s insistence on the deep significance of technoscience for ourselves and our future — for what philosophers of technology call “the human condition.” It would perhaps seem perverse to Comte that technology could accelerate past our control, but nowhere in his writing can one discover an inkling of the point that Arendt (and others) would make, that in championing technoscience as a human answer to human problems, we are also engaged in the project of redefining our understanding of ourselves. The turn toward techne rather than, say, episteme (knowledge of natural phenomena) or sapientiae (wisdom relating to human values and society) makes it difficult to carve out a meaningful idea of human uniqueness. (Even bees, aer all, are builders, in their case of hives).

Putting techne at the center also makes it possible to view a person as something that can be built, since it implies there is nothing more to a person than a superior capacity to construct ever more advanced technologies. Once embarked on this route, it is a short journey to artificial intelligence. And here is the obvious tie-in with the intelligence errors first made by Turing and then extended by Jack Good and others up to the present day: the ultimate triumph of Homo faber as a species is to build itself. This is, of course, precisely the professed goal of AI. Exploring whether the project can succeed or not will necessarily pull us into the deep waters of understanding the nature of ourselves.