The idea that AI can be conscious is a mistake. It’s just a very shiny mirror of humanity, reflecting what we want to see
According to the best-known version of his story, the young Boeotian hunter Narcissus was at once so beautiful and so stupid that, on catching sight of his own gorgeous reflection in a forest pool, he mistook it for someone else and at once fell hopelessly in love. There he remained, bent over the water in an amorous daze, until he wasted away and – as apparently tended to happen in those days – was transformed into a white and golden flower.
An admonition against vanity, perhaps, or against how easily beauty can bewitch us, or against the lovely illusions we are so prone to pursue in place of real life. Like any estimable myth, its range of possible meanings is inexhaustible. But, in recent years, I have come to find it particularly apt to our culture’s relation to computers, especially in regard to those who believe that there is so close an analogy between mechanical computation and mental functions that one day, perhaps, artificial intelligence will become conscious, or that we will be able to upload our minds on to a digital platform. Neither will ever happen; these are mere category errors. But computers produce so enchanting a simulacrum of mental agency that sometimes we fall under their spell, and begin to think there must be someone there.
We are, on the whole, a very clever species, and this allows us to impress ourselves on the world around us far more intricately and indelibly than any other terrestrial animal could ever do. Over the millennia, we have learned countless ways, artistic and technological, of reproducing our images and voices, and have perfected any number of means of giving expression to and preserving our thoughts. Everywhere we look, moreover, we find concrete signs of our own ingenuity and agency. In recent decades, however, we have exceeded ourselves (quite literally, perhaps) in conforming the reality we inhabit into an endlessly repeated image of ourselves; we now live at the centre of an increasingly inescapable house of mirrors. We have even created a technology that seems to reflect not merely our presence in the world, but our very minds. And the greater the image’s verisimilitude grows, the more uncanny and menacing it seems to become.