You know how some things just happen in close proximity at the same time and it sparks a connection between concepts which leads to deeper understanding? Well, that's how Large Language Models are trained!
Joke aside, I was answering a tweet about Artificial Intelligence and how the newest developments in the field (particularly ChatGPT and other systems based on LLMs) affect our understanding of human cognition and at the same time was listening to a very insightful short story from the collection Eye, by Frank Herbert. This story, called "Try to Remember" posits that we have developed language as a form of dissociative mental disorder, something that fragments us, creating a deleterious disconnection between body and mind, communication and language. Only by bringing these sides together can we be made whole again. The story is simple, but effective, and the mind processes behind it show again how brilliant Herbert was.
From these two things, it dawned on me. The reason why we are so shell shocked by the apparent intelligence of ChatGPT is because we have reached a point where we equate language skills with intelligence. Language is the earliest form of Artificial Intelligence! Or rather, to appease my wife's dislike of the association, a form of external intelligence. We've externalized more and more of our knowledge until our personal experience has been drowned into the communal one, the one shared through language.
The shock comes from (accidentally, I might add) discovering that what we consider intelligent is mostly an emergent property of a society built on language. Robbed of language, our identity is destroyed, a fear that has been instilled in us since the Tower of Babel. No doubt, in the future, we will be taught that if our governing AIs fail, society collapses and our identity is similarly demolished. Just like Quintilianus declaring that clothes make the man, we identify ourselves with out language.
And when I say language, I mean all of its intricacies: the special words that your group uses to differentiate from others, the memes that you share with people of the same culture, the less than grammatically correct phrasing learned from your family, the information that one is expected to know or the experience one is expected to have in order to be recognized as part of society, the accent taken from multiple sources and aggregated into something that serves more and more to define identity, even the way one gestures or moves or laughs.
What would be without all that? Like a creation running amok and enslaving its creator, literate society is forcing its own myths upon us as a survival method. The perils of societal collapse, turning us into violent animals, mindless zombies, raping cannibals or helpless victims. The heroes saving the day with just the right secret knowledge, the right utterance of words, the following of the orthodox dogma. The villains threatening it all with their own selfish individualism. All of them needing, obtaining and using a voice to achieve victory.
I believe that the feeling we get when we think of ourselves as individuals in society, the one that tells us that we're getting smaller and less significant even while the world seems to flourish around us, is not some existential crisis based on false beliefs, but truth. The part that feels that is the part that is getting drowned and smothered by the intrusion of the external in the inner domain of the being. We even gave it a name: the inner child, like it's some tiny, powerless, unreasonable part of the past, something to be outgrown or "integrated".
So here we are, stumbling onto proof the language that we based our identity and value on can now be automated to a level that no mere human can achieve. We are thinking again about personal experience, subjectivism, creativity and what it means to reason. We have been shaken into reevaluating who we are. That's a good thing.
The problem is that in our fear and awe, instead of searching for answers, we cling on the facile promises that our shared self is alive and well, that the ChatGPTs of the world are just smoke and mirror and the illusion is not in the rigged tests of our own self worth. I hope that the shock will take root, that we won't be able to hide our heads in the sand until wisdom passes us by.