AI-Cadabra: say it’s AI and make it so | Talking AI with Caputo

In the last post I set out how we see a sense of ‘magic’ being ascribed to AI systems – especially Generative AI – and this is no more clear than in the icons that tend to get used for them.

I’ve been in New Mexico this week for a family wedding, so have been offline a bunch up in the Santa Fe National Forest, while spending some time doing some thinking too.

This magical attribution has been on my mind a bunch, partly because I’ve been preparing for an interview with Professor John Caputo this coming week, which I’m extremely excited about!

This is part of the series that Tripp Fuller and I have been putting together, looking to talk to a bunch of experts across the fields of thought and practice impacted by AI. It’s already kicked off with some amazing content, and you should definitely subscribe:

Caputo is someone I’ve been privileged to have spent some time with over the years, and whose work has been a great inspiration. I was particularly keen to talk to him for this series because of his excellent book Specters of God, in which he begins to lay out a ‘hauntology’ of AI.

He begins the book with a story about Derrida:

In a scene from Ghost Dance, a 1982 French film in which Derrida played himself, an actress asks Derrida whether he believes in ghosts. He replies that his very “appearance” in this film is turning him into a ghost, an apparition in which, long after he is dead, we will be able to “see” and “hear” him, although he is no longer there. “I think that the future belongs to ghosts,” he says, “that technology increases greatly the power of ghosts.”

Specters of God, p. 1

For Caputo himself, he ‘believes in ghosts in the same way… where being is haunted by time and the spectral is the figure of the instability and undecidability of being, never identical with itself, especially today, when information technology has filled the air with ghostly voices and visions.’

There’s something important I’m keen to dig into here around the links to GenAI – which has come on stream since the publication of the book a couple of years ago – and the ability it gives us to ‘speak things into being.’ Or, at least, to generate apparitions of being, because are not all of the creations of ChatGPT, Huggingface and others virtual: possessing certain virtues or properties, but not quite reaching the level of the real, only virtually getting there.

This is AI as spectre, as a spell that we can cast. We click on the wand, and the magic happens.

But there’s something deeper going on. It’s not that we believe in ghosts, it’s that our belief in them is driven by a desire for them to be.

A good friend Daryl from the US has been a fan of the book since it came out, and pinged me about a comment he had heard as part of a discussion:

“Something isn’t AI just because you say it is.”

As Daryl noted, “We WANT to ascribe godlike power to something so badly that we’ll fool ourselves into faith.”

This is the AI-Cadabra: it becomes a spell that we cast on a system to imbue it with the magic that we are desperate for it to have. This isn’t about our belief in ghosts, but our desire to believe in ghosts… and – as Derrida notes – the power of technology to increase this desire.

We see this in the ubiquity of the AI label, slapped on pillows, on insurance websites, on dating apps. It’s there not because of its actual power, but because of the power of these letters to make us ascribe power to the system. This is AI as symbol, and thus AI functioning in the same way that the miraculous has throughout history, and throughout religion.

As Caputo notes in Specters of God:

AI is not the problem and religion is not the solution. It is only the failure of religion as it presently exists that tempts us to turn to technology to realize transcendence and only the misuse of AI that opposes it to religion.

Specters of God, p. 282

Should be a great discussion. Subscribe here to get the rest of the series, and to access the interview soon as it’s out.

In the meantime, grab a copy of the book here, or a signed copy exclusively from my local bookshop.


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