In November 2022, OpenAI released a new program known as “ChatGPT” and has since generated a great deal of attention. Its ability to present compelling content beyond the literary uncanny valley has even garnered the attention of tech giants like Google – bringing into question what web2 will do in the face of yet another disruptive technology.
Spoiler: this is not a post written by ChatGPT, there is no “gotcha” at the end of this article showing off the capabilities of ChatGPT3.
There are already numerous articles and podcasts exploring the technical side and the employment side of this technology, so I figured I’d contribute my expertise here: communities & culture.
As is typical with nearly any new disruptive technology, folks are making wild speculations on both its ability to enhance or end humanity. Whenever attempting to understand something new, I often like to find science fiction works relating to it. Science fiction is a wonderful mirror to how we understand our world and negotiate our feelings about future technology. Star Trek, specifically, is tremendously useful in helping us understand our feelings about our future selves from a prospective lens.
Don’t believe me? The communicator from 1964 inspired the invention and guided the heuristics of the mobile phone today… but here, I’d like to focus on two characters and one question.
Will human cultural acceptance of AI be closer to Star Trek’s Data or more like The Borg? Both of these integral parts to the Trekian universe embody our deep anxieties and high hopes we have for this kind of technology.
Data represents an ability to interface with other humans, cultures, and technology seamlessly. They’re an expansion of ourselves and what it means to be human – rather than replacing humanity itself. This is true of almost all the androids found in Star Trek, a necessary and ultimately inevitable step for humanity to take. We are our technology and always have been.
In fact, modern humans got to our preeminent status on this planet through technology and advancements to it. Here’s an analog example.
Wonder why Neanderthals are dead? They were supposedly extremely similar to modern humans – with a capacity for language, similar physical builds, potentially similar societal capacities, freaking religion, and even an ability to produce viable offspring with us. They were so close to us that the distinction is almost meaningless – yet there were important differences: look at their tools.
Modern humans had the edge (literally) in part because we had developed and were consistently able to produce blades and higher quality edged tool culture. Though Neanderthals may have learned this skill from us eventually, not before we were outcompeting and interbreeding with them. The writing was on the wall. Tool culture, better known as technology, propelled us past other species.
Back to Star Trek.
The Borg, among other AI antagonists from the series, is (are…?) particularly useful as a reflection for our anxiety around technology. It represents the stripping away of our humanity in the most terrifying way: by removing the individual.
Think of how often you’ve heard folks agonize over aggregate big data. Anonymized, collected information driving decisions about how best to place an ad in front of you or recommend content based on interests. Maybe worst of all, store your data alongside everyone else’s in vulnerable places with only virtual containers in data architecture differentiating you.
The truth, as always, is somewhere between these two extremes. There are fringe cases for each, of course, but the vast majority will find degrees of middling between Data and the Borg. Why? Because technology is agnostic by nature, it is human through our latent capacity to use it – and it shares all the worst and best qualities of people because it is a reflection of ourselves.
Our tools are not only a reflection of us, they are an extension of us. Given the introduction of this new and disruptive technology, it makes sense that we humans are ambivalent about ChatGPT – because we are and always have been ambivalent about ourselves.
I’ll end this here for now, but be on the lookout for a follow up article in the coming weeks.