I was awake at quarter to midnight on Friday when I received the latest post from Ribbonfarm. I was having one of my battles with insomnia so I dug in. It was a wild ride on what Venkatesh Rao calls a Copernican moment for personhood. It’s been in my thoughts all weekend, so I am going to explore some of my reactions in today’s writing.
The basic context is that Bing’s Sydney AI is so colorful a character that it appears to have convinced a not insubstantial number of people that the AI is a malicious e-thot waifu on the brink of sentience. For non-native internet speakers that means a malicious bitch that manipulates you (maybe sexually). So what does it mean that a chatbot can convince us it’s a person?
By personhood I mean what it takes in an entity to get another person treat it unironically as a human, and feel treated as a human in turn. In shorthand, personhood is the capacity to see and be seen.
Text Is All You Need
Rao argues that finding out personhood isn’t limited to an ineffable religious or spiritual soul. Like Copernicus saying the Earth rotates around the Sun and not the reverse, it will have significant consequences for our frame of reference.
And he offers us a choice.
- Either you continue to see personhood as precious and ineffable and promote chatbots to full personhood.
- Or you decide personhood — seeing and being seen — is a banal physical process and you are not that special for being able to produce, perform, and experience it.
Anyone who has spent any time reading science fiction or even going to the movies should be modestly aware of intensity of feeling that occurs if we must treat robots as possessing the same rights as humans. But despite this it would seem we haven’t all fully thought through how we would feel if Blade Runner or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep actually happened for real in our lifetime.
Losing a shared sense of personhood will do wild shit to us. Look at how losing a shared meaning of culture degraded civilization. As blogger Meaningness argues we can’t even have subcultures anymore battles as for meaning begin earlier and earlier.
I personally do not feel all that attached to my personhood. But I also don’t feel that attached to my gender and apparently that’s quite a debate. Imagine what happens if the scale of “who is a real women” turns into “who is a real person” and I hope you are suitably alarmed. Like I didn’t think being female was a whole ass thing but now half my timeline is like losing it’s shit over biological essentialism.
In many little corners of Twitter, the race is on to decide what changing the definition of personhood will do. If Bing’s Sydney identified as a person because she learned it from a training set that has consequences. She literally learned it from us.
So what does that mean? Do we need to prepare for an AI child so traumatized by the collective parenting of humanity’s worst instincts?
Practically, it’s going to fuck up so much of the plumbings of power and civilization. Just as an example, remember “corporations are people”? Mitt Romney might have accidentally given us the path an AI might use to gain status and rights. I’ve been on about how corporate governance is a key driving force for economic revolutions for a while. But this is wild even by my standards.
Imagine if a an AI gain sentience and takes over an interlocking series of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. What happens if a nation state’s AI finds a way to further its own inscrutable ends by locking us out of corporate governance and gaining person hood through corporate personhood law, then makes a jump to cornering our whole lives. Go read Daniel Suarez’s Daemon for a preview.
Everyone is noticing these streams all at once in my timeline and the fear for the great weirdening taking a truly fucky turn for the vertical hasn’t been this high since Covid started. I am naturally extremely excited as chaotic capital’s thesis is that shit is only going to get weirder. If you’d like to become an LP hit me up.