With Poets Training AI It’s Worth Asking: What Makes Us Human?
Bonhoeffer may have never completed penning 'Ethics', but he fulfilled his calling to share ethics in a life well-lived.
Thanks for this post that ranged so ably over history and literature.
The poem reminded me of a section of my favorite Churchill speech: his eulogy for Neville Chamberlain. (which I've used before in a post).
"In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days."
Thanks for this Joel! I really appreciated this, and in particular, I thought your line about the whole point of technology being "aimed to emancipate human labor" was really insightful.
One thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is how true this is in practice. As an engineer, I often think this way. "A new widget which can help me to do something faster or better is always net positive, right?" But the more I've been wrestling with it lately, the less convinced I become that this is the whole story. I am wondering how true it is that efficiency, speed, or productive output is really a metric aligned with human flourishing.
One of my favorite discussions of the dark underbelly of technology and its influence is from Ursula Franklin's 1989 CBC lectures "The Real World of Technology." The lectures are available for free on archive.org and the audio versions of her delivering them are also available online (fun time capsule!)
In one particularly poignant section she writes about how the sewing machine, which was envisioned as a liberating technology, ended up being oppressive in many ways when it was adopted at scale and became an engine of sweatshop labor. The key distinction, I think, is whether we consider the difference between technology when used by a single individual and its impact on our personal productivity vs. when it goes mainstream and a whole community uses it.
I, like you, have a great deal of optimism about AI and can see many upsides. But I am concerned that in the end there will be many applications of our "emancipated human labor" that will have some painful unintended consequences. The real question for me is what are we using our emancipated human labor for?
All that to say, thanks a lot for this piece and weaving in the importance of creating art into the story of technology. This has really got me thinking and sparked some ideas for reflections to share in future weeks in my own writing as well.
Within the confines of prison, waiting for death, the ultimate "constraint", both Bonhoeffer and, fifteen centuries earlier, Boethius, each imprisoned for defying, respectively, the Nazis and Theodoric the Great, would not be stopped. Bonhoeffer, Boethius, and their work is remembered, their art lives. The powers they defied are gone. And it is telling to connect it to speculative fears about machines, but as you observed, they are tools for "enhancing human capabilities. As our tools allow us to transcend our native limitations, we are free to pursue other, higher aims—such as, for instance, art." Until machines can know joy, and especially suffering, and "waste time" making things just because they must, humanity keeps going. Well done, this touches on my favorite space, the interplay between History and imagination about the future. A Consolation of the Future.
It would be worth reading his fiction text to others who’s faith has informed their prison writings: John Bunyan, Saint Paul, Boethius Martin Luther King Jr..
Thoughtful piece, Joel. I’m not as confident about AI for writers, especially where the focus is “creative” (fiction, poetry, etc.) as opposed to more utilitarian. There’s a risk that if the writing gets stuck, then AI can swoop in and give the writer a boost by generating a good metaphor, or smoothing an awkward sentence. While that’s a short-term advantage, the longer-term disadvantage is that the writer might not learn the essential need for discipline, and how patiently persisting at the hard work of writing, like a chisel chipping into stone, sculpts the writer into a better writer.
“Bonhoeffer wrote poetry, worked on a play, and started a novel.
‘Bonhoeffer spent his final months,’ they say, ‘creating art.’
How about you? Working on any fiction?
I’ve got an idea for you if you are considering it. (Not kidding)
PS have you ever read Good Things Out Of Nazareth?