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Abnormal Encephalization in the Age of Machine Learning


To make machines look intelligent it was necessary that the sources of their power, the labor force which surrounded and ran them, be rendered invisible.
—Simon Schaffer

If a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent.
—Alan Turing

Metacognition in the Twenty-First Century California Adult

The idea that “machines think” displays an unintended solidarity with the animism of less industrialized cultures, which have long recognized autonomous minds in nonhuman entities. Artificial intelligence is animism for the rich, we might say. Or alternatively: animism is a sort of artificial intelligence made in the absence of electricity. The recent narrative which proclaims the imminent arrival of a Technological Singularity (according to which computing machines would become self-conscious) seems typical of the human tendency to anthropomorphize the unknown. What was once attributed to the obscure and infinite night is now projected onto the abstract abyss of computation, data centers, and machine learning. Rendering the uncanny (Unheimlich) familiar (heimlich) by way of mythology is an established survival method for the human animal in the act of mapping its territory. In a hostile environment, the utility of suspicion towards any alien object is obvious: even if it doesn’t appear to move, it may be alive and dangerous. The same seems to be true even for the most advanced technological milieu. In psychology, this ability to speculate that other beings might have a will, drives, or “thoughts” less friendly than what they articulate is called metacognition, or Theory of Mind (ToM).

The Theory of Mind is a key issue in child psychology. As infants we do not know what our mother thinks: the first relation with her is a blind metabolic one, a need for milk, warmth, and care. Only gradually do we develop the understanding that our mother does not always fulfill our desires, that she may have different intentions and thoughts than ours. That is the traumatic moment in which we project the theater of the mind, i.e., we “theorize” the mind into another body. However, Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky stressed that we form the image of our mind only after picturing the mind of adults around us. Growing older, we develop an even more sophisticated mind reading: in playing poker or listening to a politician speaking, we always engage in simulating the backstage, imagining the other’s mind tricks behind and beyond their appearance. This process may unfold into pathological excess, like in the case of paranoia and conspiracy theories, when an unreachable evil mind is evoked to explain catastrophes too big to be elaborated. Or we may prefer to project a mind onto the furnace below the window or develop a vast objectophilia like Eija-Riitta Eklöf, who married the Berlin Wall.