Is ChatGPT an “anthropological revolution”?

Since the “Cat” version of artificial intelligence (AI) GPT, capable of imitating human intellectual production, has been put online, the effervescence around these technologies has brought the notion of “anthropological revolution” back into the debates.

However, what we observe, beyond ChatGPT, is that each new advance in so-called “disruptive” technologies is in fact part of this ambivalent technophilia, tempted by technoskepticism, which oscillates between wonder and thrill in the face of the rapid and impressive advances in computing and cybernetics.

Since the victory of Deep Blue, the supercomputer, against a human in chess, the tone has been set: a “turning point in the history of humanity” is being played out there.

A multitude of computing devices

The latest mathematical and technological prowess have given rise to a rapid massification of what is referred to as “artificial intelligence”, an appellation that specialists such as Luc Julia or Jean-Louis Dessalles contest because this “intelligence” is in fact available in a multitude of computing devices.

There is thus a jumble of decision-making algorithms, in particular legal (CaseLaw Analytics), facial recognition such as FaceNet, music generated by algorithms with Jukedeck, images generated by text with Dall E 2, portable conversational agents (Siri ), intelligent home automation that provides information on the contents of the refrigerator, humanoid robots capable of initiating and holding a conversation… one thinks of the now famous Sofia, who goes from TV set to conference, or Ameca, whose gestures and expressions constantly show the limits of the human.

Ameca, the humanoid robot, designed as a platform for AI and human-robot interaction (HRI). © Engineered Arts

An unbridled imagination

The massification of technologies and their all-out injection into contemporary societies are certainly remarkable, and give the impression of an irrepressible wave of technologization and digitization of human environments.

This trend feeds an unbridled imagination that necessarily sees itself as breaking with the past, hence the fashion for “revolution” with transhumanist accents. We would thus be at the “dawn” of a “new” humanity caught in a new technological “era”. A story that forgets the many failures of said technologies, moreover.

Is the “AI” or “digital” revolution a anthropological revolution ? Curiously, it was entrepreneurs like Gilles Babinet, successful historians like Yuval Noah Harari, philosophers like Frédéric Worms who took hold of the expression (with more or less exact terms).

The first to assert forcefully that this is indeed the case.

The second, with his book Homo Deusto include this revolution in a long-term model of human history at the risk of an excessive simplification which blurs the tracks between retrospective reading of history and prospective imagination.

The third, finally, with a much more measure, to at least underline the relevance of a questioning on the depth of the transformations in progress.

We regret that anthropologists are unfortunately little mobilized on a debate which primarily concerns the discipline whose name is put in all sauces, with a few exceptions. Emmanuel Grimaud has tackled head-on the essential question of the nature of AI in comparison with the features of a humanity that is increasingly questioned about what makes it unique.

Pascal Picq, seized it in a very different genre, since the paleoanthropologist does not hesitate to leave the strict framework of anthropogenesis (human evolution). It inscribes the digital revolution in the long time of human evolution and, against any intellectual reduction, invites us to think about the complexity of forms of animal and artificial intelligence.

Questioning the very notion of rupture

Anthropologists, accustomed, by intellectual specialization, to the long term and more inclined to consider continuities than ruptures (often hastily announced) in the order of societies and cultural changes, have every reason to be circumspect.

First, because not every technological change entails a major cultural change. Next Claude Lévi-Strauss notably in Race and History (1955), the term should perhaps be reserved for a phenomenon likely to profoundly (structurally) transform the order of thought and social organization.

This was the case with the domestication of fire and animal species, sedentarization and agriculture in the Neolithic era, which are not all inventions (out of nothing) but very often innovations in the anthropological sense of the term: the improvement of a technique already developed by humans. And it is in this sense that AI and many digital technologies properly deserve the term innovation more than inventions.

In this sense, the philosopher Michel Serres evoked a “third revolution” to qualify the advent of the digital world, after writing and printing. He thus echoes Jack Goody, who explains that graphic reason has metamorphosed oral reason, structuring human thought and communication for millennia. In other words, it will not be the only time, quite the contrary, where humanity finds itself confronted with a readjustment of its ways of thinking after a change in its techniques.

What revolution?

Revolution, so that this A numerical man as it is affirmed here or there with the force of the conviction that the present explains everything?

If we follow the historian Adrienne Mayor, the civilizations of Antiquity have already imagined and even begun to implement technologies that are currently on the front of the stage, in an embryonic way for AI or more accomplished for robots. . Her God and Robots twists the neck of partial and one-sided readings of a monolithic and recent history.

She thus narrates the stories of Talos, “the first robot”, then Medea’s cauldron of immortality, the borrowings of humans from animals and gods to increase their powers, the first “living” statues of Daedalus and Pygmalion, the creation of human more than human by Prometheus, the automatons of Hephaestus, the first virtual reality embodied by Pandora… For Mayor, the digital revolution would only be a Actreading in the present old technologies.

A reinvention more than a revolution, therefore, and less profound impacts than it seems: the machines were there, from the start, in the imagination of humans who groped (in every sense of the word) to materialize them.

Admittedly, the technologies are far from being identical – between the Greek automatons and the active machines of Boston Dynamics, the difference is all the same significant and any technology can first be assessed in its context – but they were already invested in the hopes of humanity to be assisted or even supplemented in its physical (for robots) and intellectual (for AI) tasks.

The Atlas takes control. © Boston Dynamics

How do humans absorb technology?

Is the revolution moreover anthropological or technological? The lesson of anthropology is to consider how humans develop technologies and how these are absorbed by social and cultural systems.

The “digital” or “digital” revolution undoubtedly generates transformations in technologies, without them being translated mechanically by changes in human behavior models. New uses are emerging, but behavioral patterns can influence techniques, rather than being influenced by them.

According to the most critical of AI and digital technology specialists, it is a matter of considering the uniqueness of each technology and its effects: where the social response to conversational agents seems rather positive and immediate (chatbots are easily adopted), facial recognition AIs give rise to circumventions by means of computer counter-systems.

According to Picq, we must undoubtedly reserve a special fate for smartphones, in the sense that they combine the materiality of a laptop computer, and the technological virtuosity of AIs. This concentrated terminal of technology which has nevertheless changed the modes of communication, accompanied or generated changes in human mobility, in the relationship to knowledge, etc. that Pascal Picq wants the true object of the current “revolution” is diversion in the sense that it becomes a laptop computer more than a telephone…

Humanity have fun and scare each other

In short, since fire, weapons, magic – perhaps the first technology for transforming human reality – therefore the first virtual reality in history? – up to AI and robots, humanity has fun and frightens itself with its technological creations, whether useful or playful.

She sometimes takes pleasure in constituting them as creatures (without them necessarily being anthropomorphized) such as mythical thought depicts them. Nothing surprising in this context that some cheat with ChatGPT for example.

Indeed, the human is a being versed in playfulness, that is to say, who likes the game as affirmed by the philosopher Johann Huizinga but also in Luddism, a form of fear aroused by technologies (in reference to the social conflict of the XIXe century which had pitted manufacturers against craftsmen, the Luddists who denounced the use of machines).

The temptation of the fetish

However, the temptation remains great to give in to the intellectual fetish of the term “revolution”. In most cases, a revolution is a cultural or socio-technical change whose premises are observed and whose impacts are conjectured that are not yet observed.

However, a revolution (except no doubt when it is decreed on the policy) is measured on the basis of retrospective elements and not extrapolations, which are fairly stable in the field of science and technology, but very unreliable in the human sciences.

However, if we consider the current advances in Artificial Intelligence, no longer solely from the point of view of a linear technological scale, like Moore’s law, but in terms of the cultural absorption and social adoption of technologies, no doubt should we then speak (in one voice with computer scientists) ofevolution instead of revolution anthropological.

But at the cost of a major intellectual reversal: that of moving from a technocentric thought (which considers that it is technology that transforms society) to a sociocentric thought of techniques (the opposite perspective, therefore). A small “revolution” then…?

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.