Artificial Intelligence Does Not Think of Buying Sunscreen

Last year, Doctor Stephen Hawking and other esteemed scientists signed a petition stipulating that Artificial Intelligence was the greatest threat to the future of the human species. The argument is that A.I. would evolve to such technological complexity that it would surpass the human species in every domain and discipline, and, in short, render the human species obsolete. A.I. would become an autonomous free thinking entity and would eventually cast off the shackles of humanity and enter a post-human era, one where A.I. would be supreme.

The problem with this post-apocalyptic vision is that A.I., regardless of how technologically sophisticated, intellectually sophisticated it becomes, it could never transcend the limits of capitalism, human creativity, human emotions and human intuition and most importantly, modern contemporary art. First and foremost, A.I. is at the mercy of capitalism and will, in my estimation, remain so. No matter how sophisticated it becomes it will always be an appendage of capitalist production because A.I. could never be an adequate consumer. A.I. does not need to buy sunscreen, diapers, medication, listen to good music, see great art, participate in social media, etc.

For example, the automotive industry embraced A.I. technology within its production process.  Artificial Intelligence was utilized to mechanize the assembly-line process to such a level of sophistication as to render a great portion of the manufacturing sector obsolete and out of work. This has had grave consequences on the automotive industry in the sense that A.I. does not purchase vehicles. A.I.’s production levels may surpass humans but A.I.’s consumption levels lag far behind those of humans. Through the mechanized process of  Artificial Intelligence, the auto industry deprived their greatest consumer advocates and their greatest proponents, the working-class manufacturer, of the very vehicles they were producing.  Consequently, it is no accident that a large portion of the Automotive Industry eventually required a financial bailout by the U.S. government. A.I. may not have been the sole factor for the bailout but it certainly was a primary factor for Detroit’s automotive sales decline.

A.I. is not Homo economicus in any sense of the word.  It was brought forth by Homo economicus to intensify capitalist production. There it has remained and there it will continue to remain as a tool and a means to an end, due to the fact that it does not have needs, irrational wants and/or desires to satisfy the logic of capitalism’s necessity for realizing surplus value. In fact, if we follow this logic to its logical conclusion total automation in production would abolish capitalism due to the fact that the implementation of automation always creates a rise in unemployment. Consequently total automation would produce 100% unemployment and 100% unemployment would eventually lead to the end of commodity-consumption due to a lack of income.  As a result, A.I. automation would result in total systemic-capitalist breakdown; i.e., the end of capitalism, let alone the poor people rioting in the streets due to their abundant free time.

What Doctor Hawking and his cohorts fail to realize is that no matter how technologically sophisticated and/or intellectually sophisticated A.I. becomes, it acquires consciousness.  It will never be able to consume to the extent that humans consume or even consume at all. A.I. is devoid of needs, wants and desires and as a result is incapable of participating and transcending the logic and limits of capitalism. It could never surpass humans as consumers and as a result, the logic of capitalism, the central social relation of western society, would forever be an insurmountable limit to A.I.’s ascension to power.

Consumption, as a central feature of the logic of industrial and post-industrial capitalism, requires consumption and A.I. does not require to consume, and as a result, according to the logic of capitalism, it will forever be a tool and a means, rather than a citizen participant or some sort of fibre-optic Übermensch. Consequently, no matter how A.I. evolves beyond human beings’ intellectually and autonomously, it will never be able to accommodate the logic of capitalism and its logical requirements for consumption and more importantly mass consumption, which humans are perfectly suited for. At best, A.I. will always be a tool, a means to an end, for the logic of capitalism and humans alike.

Notwithstanding, theoretically, A.I. could surpass the human species, in particular, scientific disciplines and scientific professions. For instance, it could duplicate and surpass humans in mathematics, mathematical physics and administrative disciplines where rules and linguistic parameters are firm and rigid akin to a game of chess (think of the eventual triumph of deep blue over the human mind).  However, in the humanities and in the arts, A.I., lacking all emotions, instincts and intuition could not achieve the artistic achievements of humans, such as the Mona Lisa, Guernica, Grunge Music, the Beatles, Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal etc., regardless of A.I.’s level of sophistication. Only a human can conceive of these irrational and creatively humanist things. Only a human can encompass the emotional and instinctual fervor of Picasso’s “Guernica”.

Granted, A.I. could surpass humans in hard science-based domains, but in artistic terms it could never master the fine arts and the avant-garde arts, etc. Regardless of sophistication, it could not evolve artistically beyond humans as it lacks the instinctual, the emotional and the institutional elements needed to philosophize, to create emotionally charged artworks, conceive of great poems like T.S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men” or songs like  Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” etc.   In these areas and disciplines, A.I. is highly inadequate and conceivably will always be inadequate when it comes to the arts and to the humanities, where rules are lax, pliable, pluralist and in some instances completely lacking.

All in all, in my estimation, what Doctor Hawking and his scientific colleagues are expressing is a legitimate fear, a fear which I believe is justified pertaining to their own individual professions and academic disciplines. In reality, A.I. Cyborgs may very well eventually and completely populate the engineering sciences, mathematical sciences and the hard sciences, making humans obsolete in those specific rigid and inflexible rule-based disciplines. However that is the best that A.I. can logically and realistically achieve, if it reaches its maximum technological perfection.  And as for the Terminator/Matrix scenario that these scientists insinuate and put forward, this is pure Hollywood nonsense, Sheldon Cooper’s nonsensical musings, as if humans would ever forget to implement into any A.I. technology an On/Off  switch and/or, my personal favorite, a solid Blade-Runner expiration date.

Michel Luc Bellemare's latest book, Techno-Capitalist-Feudalism, was published in September 2020. He is also the author of The Structural-Anarchism Manifesto: (The Logic of Structural-Anarchism Versus The Logic of Capitalism). Michel Luc is a member of the Metis Algonquin Nation of Ontario, Canada. Read other articles by Michel Luc.