Opinion | The Return of the Magicians

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By Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself writing columns that touch on the rapid advance of artificial intelligence, the mystery of unidentified flying objects haunting American skies and the enthusiasm in certain circles for taking mind-altering substances that yield a feeling, illusory or not, of contact with supernatural-seeming entities.

These are very different stories, in a way. The A.I. revolution belongs to the realm of serious and lavishly funded science. The U.F.O. phenomenon hovers on the paranormal and pseudoscientific fringe. The spiritual dimensions explored by users of drugs like DMT belong primarily to the terrain of psychology and religion — either as manifestations of some sort of Jungian unconscious or else, well, as actual spiritual dimensions.

But there is a shared spirit in these stories, a common impulse to the quests: the desire to encounter or invent some sort of nonhuman consciousness that might help us toward leaps that we can’t make on our own.

This impulse is an ancient one: The idea that one might bind a djinn, create a golem or manipulate a god or fairy to do your bidding is inscribed deep in the human imagination. Once upon a time this magician’s art seemed like a plausible rival to scientific technique, or a complementary means of mastery over nature; indeed, the scientist and the magician were often overlapping figures in the early modern imagination, blurring together in vocations like alchemy and characters like Dr. Faustus.

They separated primarily because the scientific method simply worked in a way that magical conjuring did not. Or as C.S. Lewis put it 80 years ago, in “The Abolition of Man,” “The serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins: One was sickly and died, the other strong and throve.”

But now we are in an era when people talk increasingly about the limits of the scientific endeavor — the increasing impediments to discovering new ideas, the absence of low-hanging scientific fruit, the near impossibility, given the laws of physics as we understand them, of ever spreading human civilization beyond our lonely planet or beyond our isolated solar system. Meanwhile, the speculations of scientific theorists and philosophers are reaching beyond the very confines of our universe — to an ever-multiplying multiverse whose branches never touch, or an infinite-seeming hall of simulations run by some civilization with godlike capacities relative to ours.

So it’s not surprising, in this age of frustration and re-mystification, that our thoughts and efforts might turn back to the magician’s art, in search of powers that might help us escape the limits of our island planet, our paltry life span, the crooked timber of our nature. But not simply back to the old magic of spells and incantations (though there is a lot of that these days as well). Instead in the U.F.O. fascination and the A.I. enthusiasm and the drug-enabled “psychonaut” explorations, we see attempts to link magic to science, or to deploy science to do magic, using telescopes or chemicals or vast computing powers to discover or create what the old magicians tried to conjure — namely, beings that can enlighten us, elevate us, serve us and usher in the Age of Aquarius, the Singularity or both.

The hardheaded reader will object that one of these examples isn’t like the others. Simple common sense tells us that the U.F.O. speculators are probably not about to get in touch with extraplanetary aliens. The materialist premises of modern science reassure us that our hallucinogen-ingesting psychonauts are not actually in touch ‌‌with the originals of Titania and Oberon, Jupiter or Odin. Whereas the A.I. project seems to be advancing rapidly, with no speculative leaps required to see its promise. So why lump it in with the dubious and paranormal? Why invoke sorcery to explain a straightforward scientific triumph?

Stipulate for the sake of argument that the A.I. project is more likely to have immediate practical effects than the search for extraterrestrial life or any drug-aided communion with the spirit realm. There are still good reasons to analyze its efforts in terms of djinns, golems and the like.

First, because this is how its own enthusiasts talk. Here’s Scott Aaronson, a computer scientist at the University of Texas, Austin, and one of the most accessible online writers on issues related to computer intelligence, on his own reaction to the new chatbots:

An alien has awoken — admittedly, an alien of our own fashioning, a golem, more the embodied spirit of all the words on the internet than a coherent self with independent goals. How could our eyes not pop with eagerness to learn everything this alien has to teach? If the alien sometimes struggles with arithmetic or logic puzzles, if its eerie flashes of brilliance are intermixed with stupidity, hallucinations, and misplaced confidence … well then, all the more interesting! Could the alien ever cross the line into sentience, to feeling anger and jealousy and infatuation and the rest rather than just convincingly playacting them? Who knows? And suppose not: is a p-zombie, shambling out of the philosophy seminar room into actual existence, any less fascinating?

Or consider a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed essay by Henry Kissinger, the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher of MIT, which effectively repurposes Arthur C. Clarke’s admonition that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” as a kind of boast. Their description of the emergent form of A.I. suggests an intelligence that yields its answers the way an oracle might, or a Magic 8-Ball: Through processes that are invisible to us, beyond our understanding, so complex as to be indistinguishable from action in a supernatural mind.

As such, they argue, the A.I. revolution represents a fundamental break with Enlightenment science, which “was trusted because each step of replicable experimental processes was also tested, hence trusted.” The knowledge granted us by “generative AI” will be far more mysterious; its truth will need to be “justified by entirely different methods, and it may never become similarly absolute.” Their vision of the human-to-AI relationship evokes Delphic priestesses channeling Apollo or mediums reaching through the veil: “We will have to ask continuously: What about the machine has not yet been revealed to us? What obscure knowledge is it hiding?”

And this kind of magical language mostly describes A.I. as an answer machine, Aaronson’s “embodied spirit of all the words on the internet.” It doesn’t even get into the question of whether an A.I. can actually attain consciousness, where the sorcerous aspect of this project is even more explicit.

After all, we don’t really understand our own consciousness, we haven’t even begun to solve the so-called hard problem of the mind and its relationship to matter. Yet here we are telling ourselves, in hope and also fear, that these machines whose workings we don’t fully understand might make the leap to self-awareness if only we keep making their processes more sophisticated, more beyond our ken.

In this sense what we’re doing resembles a complex incantation, a calling of spirits from Shakespeare’s “vasty deep.” Build a system that imitates human intelligence, make it talk like a person and answer questions like an encyclopedia and solve problems through leaps we can’t quite follow, and wait expectantly to see if something infuses itself into the mysterious space where the leaps are happening, summoned by the inviting home that we have made.

Such a summoning is most feared by A.I. alarmists, at present, because the spirit might be disobedient, destructive, a rampaging Skynet bent on our extermination.

But the old stories of the magicians and their bargains, of Faust and his Mephistopheles, suggest that we would be wise to fear apparent obedience as well.

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