The news rang out like a powerful clap of thunder. The latest version of the “conversational robot” ChatGPT, developed by the company OpenIA, is endowed with such a sophisticated power of speech that it resembles that of a human.
In this regard, it is worth noting that what immediately caught our attention is how these robots are able to write texts with a quality of syntax and such a degree of coherence that high school students might be tempted to use them for their homework, or press departments to produce articles — to mention just a few relevant examples.
However, because our affections are brought into play, these perspectives have led us to obscure the main issue. Namely that, well beyond writing texts on demand, these programs are speaking to us directly in what appears to be an autonomous and natural way. And this, with a view to a great industrial goal in mind: constantly guiding us down the right path.
This state of affairs stems from abrupt developments in artificial intelligence since the turn of the 2010s that enabled the development of systems that can expertly assess all kinds of situations at speeds vastly superior to our own cognitive abilities. But also, as a result of that, to make recommendations. Like the Waze app, for instance, which assesses the state of road traffic in real time and suggests the best routes.
This architecture has caused a new economic model to emerge, one with endless deposits of wealth: the automated interpretation and guidance of our behavior. For the last 15 years or so, these technologies have been designed to guide our gestures with their increasingly omniscient light — mostly for commercial purposes.
An umbilical link is thus established that the machine’s voice endows with a familiar, flowing form. Because it’s just a matter of time before everything starts talking. After connected speakers, which hit the market in 2016, there’s our smartphone, the inside of our car, our kitchen…Labs, the vast majority of which are private, are working relentlessly to robotize language as a step prior to making their products available to everyone, seemingly overnight. And how did we learn of the existence of this technological prodigy? Through news articles. In other words, after the fact.
This is a recurring issue that should give us pause: the lack of sync between, on one hand, a society that finds itself with a fait accompli and, ultimately, does nothing more than react to it; and on the other, a powerful industry that has by now become hegemonic and which, for the last two decades, has not stopped working to make our existence dependent on its achievements.
In this sense, we too often overlook the people who support this entire mechanism: the engineers — most of whom are caught up in an increasingly insane race towards so-called “innovation” and who, being subservient to the digital industry, are doing nothing more than submitting to scope statements defined with the sole objective of generating profits.
What characterizes them is the fact that they actively participate in the design of devices that are raising a growing number of questions in the public consciousness. This places them in an awkward position that sometimes makes them feel bad about themselves.
And so, in order to make a good impression, a skillful campaign to manufacture consent has been maintained for a long time, thus allowing us to have both our cake and eat it too. This has been done through the constant use of a concept with the air of a magic potion, or of smoke and mirrors, that is meant to reassure the multitudes: “ethics.”
How many times in recent years have we seen corporate symposiums, not to mention myriad works written by some of their members and all repeating the same refrain? That, no doubt about it, we are all going to benefit from these continuous technological developments, although, in any event, it is advisable to guard against possible drifts. So many speeches repeated in a loop by people who, moreover, are judge and jury.
Truth be told, the essence of this standpoint is that it only ratifies things, insofar as what is usually understood by this notion only refers to vague regulatory or legislative firewalls — without ever taking into account the civilizational and anthropological scope of the mutations now underway. Namely, a progressive obliteration of our faculties brought about by the increasing automation of human affairs.
That’s where it is advisable to take things up a notch and move from ethics — which, these days, is rather vulgarly used — into a dimension that could be considered superior: morality. The first is derived from the application of a few rules of supposed good conduct to specific cases. The second is understood as unconditional respect for our fundamental principles. Among these, there is one that has been constantly eroded by the digitalization of our lives and, as such, must be defended more than ever: the best expression of our abilities, on which our development as individuals depends.
Because, after having experienced a reduction of our autonomy of judgment due to the generalized adoption of systems that guide the course of our daily lives for various purposes, it is a renunciation of our power of speech that is now forthcoming.
That is why it is up to us to block an ethos which, in reality, stems from a hatred of the human race, and which simply aims to substitute our bodies and minds - de facto deficient - with technologies conceived to ensure a supposedly perfect, and hygienic, organization of the general and particular running of the world.
The time has come to raise our voice — our own voice — and take up that line from Albert Camus in The Rebel, where he writes that “this has been going on too long (…), You are going too far (…) There are certain limits beyond which you shall not go.”
This would be a true humanism of our time. Not proclaiming at every turn, heart in hand and always in a very vague way — like the gurus of Silicon Valley or the hordes of engineers — that it’s all about putting “people at the center,” but to regard the adequate manifestation of our sensitive and intellectual assets as an imperative condition for fully free and plural societies.
Éric Sadin is a philosopher and an expert in the digital world. His work has been translated into English, Spanish and Italian. This article was originally published in French in Le Figaro on February 6, 2023.
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