The Rise of the Thinking Machines?

Dwayne Monroe

June 16, 2022

As I type these words, trying, with the help of a glass of wine, to maintain my composure, a debate of sorts is underway on Twitter. The ‘debate’ is between people who believe, or at least, assert, that a large language model system created by Google, called LaMDA (for, Language Model for Dialogue Applications) has reached ‘sentience’, a word typically used by people who’re besotted with science fiction tropes to mean thinking; and, people who object to this idea. The opposition has many things on its side, chief among them, the simple fact that large language models (or, LLMs, as they’re known in the trade) are elaborate pattern matching systems, computational parlor tricks, or, as researchers Emily M. Bender and Timnit Gebru call them, stochastic parrots, that consume huge amounts of computing power and utilize applied mathematics via software for pattern matching, probability and, crucially, our words, vacuumed from the Internet and fed back to us, to create the illusion of conversation.

In a saner world, the facts would win this debate. But we don’t live in such a world. In our world, a combination of techno-naivete, science fiction ideation, and, most importantly, deliberate misinformation is pushing a narrative; the age of thinking machines is here (or just a silicon kiss away) and everything we know, particularly about labor, is about to change.

The AI Myth and the Ownership Class

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has long been the subject of science fiction and we are told we are closer than ever to a world where this fiction will become a reality. In much of the advanced capitalist world, it seems that not a day goes by without a journalist, business leader, or politician making some bold prediction about the way that AI is about to revolutionize how we live. But this is a lie. Indeed, it is more than that, it is a deliberate deception perpetrated by what we might term the AI Industrial Complex (AIIC).

It is important to note here that the AIIC should, of course, be seen as distinct from the work of researchers and practical technologists. Rather it should be understood as a sophisticated propaganda campaign - realized through marketing promotion, media hype, and capitalist activity – designed to both obfuscate a lack of technical capacity and diminish the value of human labor and talent. More succinctly, it is an effort on the part of the ownership class to promote the idea that machine cognition is now, or soon will be, superior to human capabilities.

Stop Training Radiologists

There is nothing today that can be meaningfully called “artificial intelligence”, after all how can we engineer a thing that we haven’t yet decisively defined? Moreover, at the most sophisticated levels of government and industry, the actually existing limitations of what is essentially pattern matching, empowered by (for now) abundant storage and computational power, are very well understood. The existence of university departments and corporate divisions dedicated to ‘AI’ does not mean AI exists. Rather, it’s evidence that there is a powerful memetic value attached to using the term, which has been aspirational since it was coined by computer scientist John McCarthy in 1956. Thus, once we filter for hype inspired by Silicon Valley hustling in their endless quest to attract investment capital and gullible customers, we are left with propaganda intended to shape common perceptions about what’s possible with computer power.

As an example, consider the case of computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton’s 2016 declaration that