Global Art Forum, Dubai

22 March, 2018

Lecture and discussion at the Global Art Forum 2018: “I am not a Robot” (subject to speculation!). Panel moderated by M. Wirth “I am Human, Can you prove it?” on 22 March, 2018 @ 3:45 pm.

It’s telling that the general theme of the Global Art Forum concerns the making of a distinction between humans and machines. This resurgence of inquiry into the human comes at a time of significant turbulence for our generic self-image, where on the one hand we have entered into a broadened ‘we’ as collective subjects of geohistory with the advent of the Anthropocene.[1] And Secondly, techno-computational developments have begun to transform our bio-physiological limits, our conditions of labour, and importantly stand to burst the contours of intelligence we once figured as being our exclusive defining ‘human’ quality. Now wherever one positions oneself theoretically or politically along this spectrum (and the conflicts are plenty) – the uncertainties and risks that cascade from our historical moment are, as such, indisputable. It’s not merely an expression of generational narcissism to say that we are living in the prehistory of something radically other, where human self-conception is undergoing revision, and a new, unknown world is on the cusp of becoming reality.[2] How that world will be navigated, and how we humans will be remolded in our relations to it, with each other and with other life-forms, are the consequential stakes of our era. They are ones we urgently need to confront, and cannot wishfully ignore then away as if going back to a simpler state of a world conceived in conformance with human phenomenological bias of concrete immediacy, was an option.

The word ‘human’ as a universal, only signifies a scientific understanding of ourselves as Homo Sapiens Sapiens, but hardly comes to stand for how we manifestly enact the term socially, ethically and politically speaking. That is to say, the world ‘human’ itself, is not a given. Indeed, when defining the human as a distinct creature because of our capacities for conceptual reasoning, the fact that most humans’ expressions of intelligence have not counted, then socio-political exclusions from this category amount to nothing less than acts of dehumanization. In view of the history of struggles around the category of the human, it would be misguided to imagine a sudden manifest sense of solidarity amongst members of this scientific category, even though we desperately need it in view of the planetary-scale turbulences we face. The category of ‘human’ may hold scientifically, but the universality of this scientific classification is not commensurate with the long-running battles over the scope of its enclosure. More work needs to be done in the name of diversifying our definition of intelligence, not only in the name maximizing the ‘we’ of humanity, but towards alien expressions of intelligence that do not conform to our anthropomorphic perspectives.

Turning towards the machinic, perhaps this is a context from which to forge a pathway to just such diversification, with consequences not only for human-machine relations, but human to human and human interspecies relations as well. If we’re on the cusp of an intelligence explosion, can we learn from it in not only technical ways but more importantly, socially as well? In terms of AI, this brings a helpful correction to measures we have put to machines that have historically been forced to mimic us in order to trick us into believing they too are intelligent. Artificial Stupidity in AI, outlined by Benjamin Bratton in his essay “Outing AI” is one of those cases, where machines have to dumb themselves down in order to make them more human-like – like if I would ask anyone in this audience without the aid of a calculator to tell me the square root of 2,659 multiplied by 76 – you would likely take ages, and if a machine were to pass for a human here, it would have to sit idle for an hour just to convince me it was a human. What purpose does that serve besides the vanity of appealing to my type of human intelligence? Whereas Artificial Ignorance is when a machine runs so efficiently in performing its designated task that it becomes ridiculous if not downright dangerous in doing so (as was infamously captured by Nick Bostrom’s paperclip maximizer thought experiment) – so where a machine possesses no artificial REASON, to know when to stop performing a task – a type of reasoned intelligence humans can be decent at in gauging – but certainly not always so.

The main point is, rather than continually rearticulating our biases of competition between us and the machine, can we not come to seize this intelligence explosion as a potential in human-machine collaboration that could not only offer us a better grasp of reality through capacities of modelling and abstraction, but introduce a shift in our conceptions and structures of enclosure over what counts and gets accounted for as intelligence at all.

[1] The consequence of having perceived ourselves as possessing mastery OVER the world, where the earth was conceived (philosophically and pragmatically) as a mere backdrop or resource-base for our exploits

[2] For an elaborate account of the revisioning of human intelligence qua computation, see: Reza Negarestani, Intelligence and Spirit, (Falmouth/New York: Urbanomic and Sequence Press, 2018), forthcoming.