Artificial Intelligence Is Just a Story, and We Can Tell a Better One

Part of the I, ROBOT series

Amazon has recently confirmed reports that its home operating system “Alexa,” has been spontaneously laughing for no apparent reason, occasionally refusing to obey commands, and sometimes performing actions that were never asked for.

No one has any idea why — is this a bug? A glitch? A hacker attack? — but internet pioneer and Microsoft researcher Jaron Lanier is probably not surprised.

In his 2017 book Dawn of the New Everything, Lanier points out the startling degree to which these home operating systems — not just Amazon’s but from every company on the market — visually resemble “HAL,” the AI system in 2001: A Space Odyssey which cannot process conflicting missions and turns homicidal.

In our interview, conducted before reports of Alexa’s behavior surfaced, he speculated that this design similarity does reflect something deeper — an inability to imagine using technology in ways that enhance us, rather than turn against us. Design has entered into a kind of creative death wish.

It’s something we assume is necessitated by the technology itself — but Lanier, who was present when so many of the decisions about how the internet would work were first designed — reminds us that there are alternatives. There are other assumptions we can make, other design principles that we can apply, and other ends we can create towards. “Artificial Intelligence,” he says, is not an actual thing: it is a story we tell ourselves about how our technology works. It has been personified precisely because there are things we will let “autonomous agents” get away with that we wouldn’t let programmers and entrepreneurs who can be held responsible. Programs don’t have agency, but they are programmed by people with agendas.

It’s convenient for some people to tell us that there is no alternative, but there are alternatives, and Lanier proposes them. “Technologists,” he writes, “have a responsibility to come up with media technologies of such beauty, fascination, and depth that mankind will be seduced away from mass suicide.”

I can’t think of a better credo for Burning Man technology. Listen to our full interview with Jaron Lanier.


Cover Image: Life Cube 4 (Photo by Playaman)


About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs