An Infamous Device

 questi è Nembrotto per lo cui mal coto
 pur un linguaggio nel mondo non s'usa.
 This is Nimrod, because of whose vile plan
 the world no longer speaks a single tongue.

 Dante, Inferno, XXXI

et me make an attempt at allegory. Suppose someone said that the Burj Khalifa is an improvement on the Tower of Babel, a step toward accomplishing the goal of that ill-fated project. The claim, to be clear, is not just that, as the Encyclopedia Britannica suggests, “the Tower of Babel was the world’s first skyscraper” and the Burj is the state of the art; rather, imagine someone arguing that the Burj Khalifa should give us hope that one day we will build a tower all the way to heaven. I think we can all agree that this would be silly. The Tower of Babel wasn’t just a project ahead of its time that “fell short” of its objective, waiting for reinforced concrete and the buttressed core to be invented.

In his De Vulgare Eloquentia, Dante described the Tower of Babel as a “work of evil” (L. opus iniquitatis). The “infamous device” of my title is one translation of “mal coto” in Canto XXXI of the Inferno which is rendered as “vile plan” in the epigraph and “evil” or “wicked thought” by others. One translator calls the Tower of Babel simply a “bad idea”, which made me chuckle when I found it. What they all have in common is the imputation that the project was ill-conceived from the start.

A recent “big ideas” piece in the Guardian by Regina Rini, a philosopher at York University, and some exchanges on Twitter, reminded me of all this. In it, she compares Google’s most advanced “Language Model for Dialog Applications” (LaMDA) to the children’s toy See ‘n Say, just as I have compared it to a Magic 8 Ball. Like me, she found that LaMDA is just a “very fancy” input-output device, i.e., a machine that mindlessly responds to prompts from the user with utterances that are meaningful to that user. Like me, she rejects Blake Lemoine’s claim that LaMDA is conscious (and may even have a soul). But then she says something odd:

One day, perhaps very far in the future, there probably will be a sentient AI. How do I know that? Because it is demonstrably possible for mind to emerge from matter, as it did first in our ancestors’ brains. Unless you insist human consciousness resides in an immaterial soul, you ought to concede it is possible for physical stuff to give life to mind. There seems to be no fundamental barrier to a sufficiently complex artificial system making the same leap. While I am confident that LaMDA (or any other currently existing AI system) falls short at the moment, I am also nearly as confident that one day, it will happen.

LaMDA, she tells us, merely “falls short” of sentience. “One day” it could happen and LaMDA is well on its way.

Of course, if that’s far off in the future, probably beyond our lifetimes, some may question why should we think about it now. The answer is that we are currently shaping how future human generations will think about AI, and we should want them to turn out caring. There will be strong pressure from the other direction. By the time AI finally does become sentient, it will already be deeply woven into human economics. Our descendants will depend on it for much of their comfort. Think of what you rely on Alexa or Siri to do today, but much, much more. Once AI is working as an all-purpose butler, our descendants will abhor the inconvenience of admitting it might have thoughts and feelings.

There’s a lot going on here. In fact, it should remind us of another take on the Tower of Babel, namely, Kafka’s “City Coat of Arms”. He also began with the premise that the project would take many generations to complete.

The essential thing in the whole business is the idea of building a tower that will reach to heaven. In comparison with that idea everything else is secondary. The idea, once seized in its magnitude, can never vanish again; so long as there are men on the earth there will be also the irresistible desire to complete the building. That being so, however, one need have no anxiety about the future; on the contrary, human knowledge is increasing, the art of building has made progress and will make further progress, a piece of work which takes us a year may perhaps be done in half the time in another hundred years, and better done, too, more enduringly. So why exert oneself to the extreme limit of one’s present powers? There would be some sense in doing that only if it were likely that the tower could be completed in one generation. But that is beyond all hope. It is far more likely that the next generation with their perfected knowledge will find the work of their predecessors bad, and tear down what has been built so as to begin anew. Such thoughts paralyzed people’s powers, and so they troubled less about the tower than the construction of a city for the workmen.

By the time we actually reach heaven, he might have said, the tower will “already be deeply woven into human economics”. A great city will lie at its base, having grown up around it throughout the construction process to provide for the needs of the builders. Of course, this city will be no less real, no less bustling, no less rife with human conflict and ethical dilemmas, at every stage of the project before it reaches heaven. Indeed, the city will be what it is regardless of whether the Tower is ever completed.

And this brings us back to Dante. In De Vulgare Eloquentia, he offered an almost sociological explanation for the “confusion” that the name of Babel has come to stand for. The story of the Tower of Babel becomes a sort of allegory of the division of labor and the fragmentation of the disciplines.

Almost the whole of the human race had collaborated in this work of evil. Some gave orders, some drew up designs; some built walls, some measured them with plumb-lines, some smeared mortar on them with trowels; some were intent on breaking stones, some on carrying them by sea, some by land; and other groups still were engaged in other activities – until they were all struck by a great blow from heaven. Previously all of them had spoken one and the same language while carrying out their tasks; but now they were forced to leave off their labours, never to return to the same occupation, because they had been split up into groups speaking different languages. Only among those who were engaged in a particular activity did their language remain unchanged; so, for instance, there was one for all the architects, one for all the carriers of stones, one for all the stone-breakers, and so on for all the different operations. As many as were the types of work involved in the enterprise, so many were the languages by which the human race was fragmented; and the more skill required for the type of work, the more rudimentary and barbaric the language they now spoke.

Perhaps Rini’s “big idea” is our version of Nimrod’s “vile plan”? Artificial intelligence is presented to us as a glorious project that we should care deeply about and devote both our technical and philosophical energies to even if it cannot be completed in our lifetimes. But will our descendants speak of it with the same contempt with which Dante speaks of the Tower of Babel? Will it be known as the “infamous device [because of which] the world no longer speaks a common language,” indeed, perhaps, because of which the world no longer speaks (or writes) at all, having left language, and the age-old business of concealing our thoughts (or the fact that we have no thoughts) to the machines? Kafka’s closing words are apt:

All the legends and songs that came to birth in that city are filled with longing for a prophesied day when the city would be destroyed by five successive blows from a gigantic fist. It is for that reason too that the city has a closed fist on its coat of arms.

Are not “all our legends and songs” (in the alternate universe of our science fiction) full of longing for the day when the machines take over and rid this Earth of the scourge to the planet we have made ourselves?


If you like this post, you might also like a post I wrote a five years ago on my other blog applying the same imagery to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a project that, unfortunately (because who doesn’t love it?), may be as incoherent as the quest for AI.

Image credit: German Late Medieval (c. 1370s) depiction of the construction of the tower, Meister der Weltenchronik – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, via Wikipedia.

3 thoughts on “An Infamous Device

  1. Such a wonderful topic, amazing writing style, and interesting arguments presented in an academically-classy way.

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