The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Artificial Intelligence:
Replace Human Intelligence or Liberate It?

Apr 10, 2023

The following article is translated from an article appearing in Lutte de Classe # 232, May-June 2023, issued by comrades of the French Trotskyist organization, Lutte Ouvrière.

Last November, the company OpenAI launched ChatGPT, a program that can write a text on any subject by imitating a human being. The program passed the final exams at several top schools, and books written by ChatGPT are already on sale. At the end of March, a group of scientists and engineers in new technologies, including Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, and Elon Musk, the boss of Tesla and Space X, were alarmed by the threats that the developments of what is called “artificial intelligence” would represent for humanity and demanded a moratorium. What is behind these cries of alarm from tech capitalists? What prospect does this new technology open for humanity?

Computers are now able to automatically produce original texts, after having mastered language translation and facial recognition. Even earlier, in 1997, the Deep Blue computer beat the chess World Champion, Garry Kasparov. Someone cannot necessarily distinguish between the texts produced today by a computer and the one a human might have written. Recent advances in computer science and their prospects for application in all fields make one’s head spin: computer-assisted medical diagnosis and surgery, autonomous robots, natural disaster prediction, etc.

And yet, like every technical upheaval since the first industrial revolution, these innovations are worrying because they could destroy millions of jobs, generalize surveillance, manufacture mass disinformation and produce weapons capable of killing without human intervention. People most inclined to see catastrophes imagine that computers eventually will become entirely autonomous, taking over humanity. They revive the 1950s fantasy of novelist Isaac Asimov, according robots the power to take over humans.

But computers, no matter how sophisticated they are, remain above all machines. The impact of the latest advances in computer science on society will depend first of all on who will use these discoveries, and with what objectives. The progress in chemistry at the beginning of the 20th century made it possible to produce fertilizers that could feed the whole of humanity, as well as deadly gases for use in combat. The same is true for radioactivity, which can be used to treat cancers and produce energy, but also to make bombs.

Highly Sophisticated Machines, but Not Intelligent

The expression “artificial intelligence” implies that the functioning of the programs in question is equivalent to that of our brain. This conception is far-fetched. Computers may do wonders, but the achievements of human intelligence are incomparably wider. To deny this difference is to underestimate humanity and its capabilities. Yet these ideas are becoming more and more widespread. In their recent open letter, published in many media including Le Monde and the New York Times, hundreds of alarmed researchers and digital capitalists claimed that “artificial intelligence systems are now capable of competing with human beings.” They rely on the fact that more and more tasks that were thought to be impossible without human intelligence can now be automated. Yann Lecun, director of Facebook’s artificial intelligence laboratory, defined artificial intelligence in 2016 in a lecture at the Collège de France as “a set of techniques that allow machines to perform tasks and solve problems normally reserved for humans and certain animals.”

To speak of intelligence because a machine performs a task for which there was previously a need for human intervention, is to confuse intelligence with automation. In this respect, the Jacquard loom, which automated the weaving of patterns on silk fabrics at the beginning of the 19th century, could also have been qualified as intelligent since before its invention this work was done by humans.

The ambition to create “artificial intelligence” is as old as computing, and the term itself dates back to 1956. Already at that time, researchers realized that a computer could be programmed not only as a calculator, but also to solve geometry problems, to plan a series of actions to be performed by a robot or to imitate a conversation. These successes made the computer scientist Herbert Simon say in 1965, “machines will be able, within twenty years, to do any job that man can do.” His prediction quickly proved to be exaggerated.

The basic principle of these programs was to try all possible answers to a question until they find the right one. But this works only for simple problems. To generate a text, one can store all the words from a dictionary and all the rules of grammar in a computer, but the number of texts that can be constructed with it is infinite and the vast majority of them make no sense! To solve this problem, we had to wait for the miniaturization of electronics, the explosion of computing power and memory of computers, and the development of the Internet, which allows for information from all over the world to be centralized. Thanks to this, it is no longer necessary to explicitly program all the steps that the computer must follow to find the solution to a question. We can use probabilities.

The heart of ChatGPT is a mathematical model that establishes what makes sense in a text. Using databases containing millions of words, it learns how to calculate the probability that the beginning of a sentence will be followed by a particular word. For example, “At night, the sky is...” is more likely to be followed by “black” than by “red” because the words “sky” and “night” are more likely to be associated with the color black. By selecting words one after the other according to these probabilities, it can generate a whole text. The more sentences in the database, the finer the model, and the more realistic the generated texts.

This learning by repetition is indeed one of the mechanisms of our brain, but it is training, not understanding. Each time it reads a new sentence, ChatGPT increases the probability of the corresponding words, but it has not understood it. Even if the texts produced are “original” in the sense that they are not simply a copy and paste of texts already written, their content is implicitly programmed by the database on which the program is trained. It is a machine that imitates what has already been written. Unlike mechanical machines that automate gestures, learning algorithms automate psychic processes that take place in our brain, but that doesn’t make them intelligent.

Human Intelligence: the Result of Biological and Social Evolution

Human intelligence is richer than these training mechanisms. Unlike machine-learning algorithms, it does not simply reproduce what has been done in the past. Most of the revolutionary discoveries in the history of humanity have been the product of trial and error, where free curiosity played at least as important a role as systematic research: the mastery of fire, agriculture, writing and, more recently, the discovery of electricity or antibiotics. Computers are unable to do this because curiosity, like the many feelings and emotions that are constantly involved in our thinking, cannot be summed up in a few equations.

Unlike computers, our intelligence was not created. It is the result of a biological and then social evolution that spans millions of years. This is what gives it this capacity to explore unknown directions, without a fixed objective. Our nervous system and our brain are malleable, the connections between neurons are made and unmade throughout life. When a gesture is repeated many times, the area of the brain dedicated to this movement is stimulated and strengthened, which allows us to gain in precision, speed, etc. This cerebral plasticity, by which our brain is linked to our whole body, has been favored by natural selection because it allows our organism to learn, to adapt to extremely different environments and situations.

An essential characteristic of humanity is that it is not content to adapt passively to the pressure of the environment; it transforms the environment, adapting it to human needs. Work has been a determining factor in the appearance of thought, because it implies projecting oneself into the future, planning one’s actions by anticipating the consequences. To kill a mammoth, the prehistoric hunter first had to find suitable flints, cut them, adjust them on a handle, before checking if the resulting spear would finally allow him to hunt. And this approach is not the result of an isolated brain, it is social. In order to organize collective work, humanity has created languages and concepts, which have largely contributed to the development of abstract thought. Astronomy first developed, allowing Egyptian farmers to anticipate the flooding of the Nile and sailors to get their bearings on the high seas, long before physicists tried to deduce the laws of gravitation and the mechanisms of the solar system’s formation. A living body, with its needs and a social life—these are all things that computers lack to be able to think like humans.

As humanity domesticated the forces of nature, it created more and more sophisticated tools. Through irrigation and the plow, it made fields spring up where there was only desert. By mastering the power of steam, then of the internal combustion engine, it built machines that move by themselves. Thanks to electronics, a machine can be programmed to run autonomously for years, and the most recent algorithms allow it to automatically improve its performance over time. But no matter how complex they are, whether it’s a carved flint, a plow or a satellite, none of these instruments do what they want, but what they were built to do. Unlike the most powerful computer, humanity sets its own goals, even when it is not fully aware of the means to achieve them, or the consequences of its actions. This is where true intelligence begins.

Worry, Pessimism and Rivalries Between Capitalists

The fact that we are able to reproduce certain mechanisms of our brain is a new proof of the power of human intelligence. Our brain is self-aware, it seeks to understand its own functioning and to reproduce it. However, today, instead of reinforcing confidence in its possibilities, these technical feats feed fear. For despite the unprecedented mastery of nature achieved by humanity, it still has no conscious control over its own social organization. The signers of the letter quoted in the introduction conclude by asking governments to impose a six-month moratorium on artificial intelligence research programs because we could be on the verge of “developing non-human minds that would make us obsolete and replace us” thus risking “the loss of control over the future of our civilization.” They insist that such decisions cannot be left to “unelected leaders.”

From a capitalist like Elon Musk, the most well-known signer of the letter, these democratic considerations are obviously only a pretext to hide economic interests. On March 26, Goldman Sachs published a study entitled “The Potentially Significant Effects of Artificial Intelligence on Economic Growth,” in which it estimates that 300 million jobs worldwide could be automated by machine-learning algorithms. These figures should be taken with a grain of salt. But whatever the number, the largest digital companies (the GAFAMs) are already in a race to grab the lion’s share of this multi-billion-dollar market. [GAFAM refers to five U.S. digital companies: Google (now called Alphabet), Apple, Facebook (now, Meta), Amazon and Microsoft.] With ChatGPT, Microsoft got a head start. Google and Facebook quickly followed with their own software, Bard and LLaMA. Musk missed the boat, and he’s probably hoping that a six-month break will allow him to catch up.

Before we even know what this software is really capable of, capitalists and world leaders are fighting over who will benefit. Who will get the royalties for a book or computer-generated image? Who will have to pay the fine if a content violates the laws? Everyone knows that whoever succeeds in establishing a monopoly will be in a strong position to impose their conditions. The Chinese government has banned ChatGPT in favor of a competing version, Ernie Bot, developed by a Chinese company. Information may circulate at the speed of light, but in the digital domain, as in all other domains, it is capitalist competition with its borders and protectionism that dictates its laws. In this economic war, philosophical considerations on the future of civilization are dragged out only to serve as a screen for the decisions of the corporations and the states that serve them.

A “Framework” Always at the Service of the Capitalists

The struggle is all the more fierce because these so-called intelligent algorithms are considered a strategic sector, both by capitalists and by their states. Whether it is a question of anticipating market developments in order to adapt their commercial strategy or to have the most modern “intelligent” weapons, all the capitalists know that they will be dependent tomorrow on the algorithms controlled by the trusts that manage to impose their stranglehold on the sector. This is exactly what the digital giants did 20 years ago—and they know it. By dominating the internet, Google became one of the world’s largest companies in a few years, with a market capitalization far exceeding that of an oil company like ExxonMobil or an investment bank like Goldman Sachs.

A key point in this confrontation is the data used to drive these programs, i.e. all the texts, images and videos stored on computer servers. This data represents a gigantic and rapidly growing market: in 2020, users of electronic devices generated 64 zetabytes, the equivalent of 64 billion hard drives. At that time, Wilbur Ross, Donald Trump’s former Commerce Secretary, estimated the value of data exchanged between Europe and the United States at 7.1 trillion dollars. Competition is fierce over who gets to use that data, and on what terms. In 2015, the Safe Harbor treaty, which regulated data transfers between the European Union and the United States, was annulled by the European Court of Justice, which ruled that Safe Harbor “did not sufficiently protect the privacy of European citizens.” Its replacement, the Privacy Shield, was in turn cancelled in 2020, for the same reason.

European companies that want to take advantage of the predictions of GAFAM algorithms to adapt their strategy to market changes are forced, not only to give them a share of their profits, but also to send them information about their customers, their products, their manufacturing processes. The European companies fear that their information will end up in the hands of competitors. And the European states do not want to entrust GAFAM with confidential and strategic data, which could be recovered by the American government. Behind the general statements of European officials about “defending privacy” is the defense of the private interests of European capitalists against the monopoly of U.S. companies over the digital market.

Those who call for a framework for the use of these new technologies are counting on the states, and first of all the most powerful ones, to impose this control. Eliezer Yudkowsky (director of the MIRI, a research institute on artificial intelligence) declared on March 29 in an interview with Time magazinethat he considered a six-month moratorium to be insufficient. A complete ban on a global scale is necessary. To impose such a ban, he said, we should not shy away from military intervention: “If intelligence indicates that a country outside the conventions is building a GPU cluster [computer equipment used to train machine-learning programs], be less afraid of an armed conflict between nations than of a moratorium violation; be prepared to destroy an illegal datacenter by bombing.” With such a policy, it is not artificial intelligence that is the mortal danger!

This suggests what an international agreement on artificial intelligence might look like. Similar treaties already exist against the proliferation of atomic weapons. In practice, they serve to ensure that the great powers have a monopoly over these weapons, including through the most brutal methods. It was in the name of non-proliferation of atomic weapons that Israel, supported by the United States—the only state to have used the atomic bomb, against two Japanese cities—recently bombed a nuclear center in Iran. In 2003, it was in the name of fighting bacteriological and chemical weapons that the U.S. invaded and razed Iraq. Within the framework of capitalism, any “framework for artificial intelligence” can only be the law imposed by the biggest imperialist powers according to the interests of their national capitalists.

Consciously Mastering Our Social Organization: a Battle That Remains to Be Fought

The constant threat that the greatest scientific discoveries will turn against the interests of the vast majority of humanity is a symptom of the fact that society can no longer make progress within the narrow framework of the law of the market and competition for profit. Learning algorithms could be a tremendous step forward, saving millions of hours of human labor, if they were used to plan the functioning of the economy. Beyond the hard and dangerous jobs that could be entrusted to robots, machine-learning algorithms offer the possibility to automate repetitive tasks in stock management, administration, accounting. Factories equipped with sensors already exist. Data could be measured throughout the production process and stored on centralized computer servers. With this, algorithms could automate entire factories, even entire production lines. But to implement this and centralize information at all stages of the chain, the straitjacket of private property has to be broken. This presupposes that humanity consciously takes its own social organization in hand.

Those who reduce the potential of human intelligence to the level of computers, thus reducing men to the level of robots, explain in the end that humanity is incapable of going beyond the blind profit race of capitalism to put these formidable machines at the service of all. Defending the specificity of human intelligence in the face of so-called artificial intelligence, and its incredible potential, is therefore inseparable from the struggle for humanity to consciously take control of its social organization.

Rotting capitalism not only puts a straitjacket on the economic and material development of humanity, it also puts blinders on its intellectual development. It is becoming increasingly popular, including in academic circles, to claim to replace scientific understanding with statistical learning. Frédérique Vidal, a researcher and Macron’s former minister of Higher Education and Research, declared in a 2017 speech at INRIA: “Science is going through ... an epistemological revolution with the implementation over the past decade alone of a ‘fourth paradigm’ of scientific discovery, based on the intensive analysis and exploitation of data, without the a priori need for a model describing reality.”

But the analysis of data can produce only a description of the world, while a model identifies causes and effects that allow us to act on that world. Starting from the data collected by the astronomer Tycho Brahe, Kepler was able to propose his laws that described the orbit of the stars. But it was the model discovered by Newton that allows us to envision a force of gravity valid not only for the planets, but for all bodies, one which still serves today allowing planes to fly and satellites to be put in orbit. To put the two on the same plane is a conservative view; it implies renouncing the search for a lever with which we could act on the world around us.

This lack of perspective is characteristic of a society in crisis. The decadent bourgeoisie spits on its own heritage. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was revolutionary and fighting against the power of the nobility, the bourgeois world gave birth to Newton, Diderot, Voltaire. These thinkers sought to project themselves far into the future, to dig into scientific and social problems to attack them at their roots. They had the audacity to confront the society of their time in order to open up a new path and, in their own way, to take a leap into the unknown. In 1600, Giordano Bruno was condemned to the stake because he went so far as to assert that truth should be sought in the study of the real world and not in the holy texts. In the introduction to the Encyclopedia, published in 1751, the philosopher of the Enlightenment, D’Alembert, set this ambitious program: “The universe, for those who could embrace it from a single point of view, would be, if it may be said, a single fact and a great truth.” Despite the gaps in their understanding of the workings of nature, due to the technical limitations of the observational instruments of their time, they dared to assert that human intelligence was capable of understanding the world without a God to hold its hand. And the most consistent deduced that humanity would also be able to organize society without a king.

This intellectual audacity is accessible only to a social class that has confidence in the future it can propose to society. But this has not been the case with the bourgeoisie for more than a century. The intellectual evolution of the bourgeoisie is the demonstration that the history of human thought is not a slow progressive development, from the obscurantism of ignorance to the lights of reason. It reflects the social upheavals and the class struggle. It is the fruit of struggles led by women and men. Marx expressed this in 1845: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” These struggles are not the result of great individuals, great women and men who once a century step forward from society. The greatest intellectuals do not draw their ideas from nothing, but from their capacity to find in the reality of social relations, in the interests of opposing classes that tear society apart, the answers to the questions that agitate their time. Marx’s genius was to see that the only social class capable of resolving the deadly contradictions in which capitalist society is mired is the working class, because it has no private property to defend.

Only by placing ourselves on this communist ground can we confidently envisage a future in which humanity will consciously take its fate into its own hands and rid itself of the shackles of capitalist competition, collectivize its factories, banks and computer servers and put them at the service of everyone’s needs. A future where these algorithms, which are intelligent in name only, combined with the formidable existing productive forces, will allow the human brain to free itself from the mind-numbing routine of productive work and to concentrate on truly intelligent activities. In freeing themselves from the obligation of having to devote the best of themselves to daily survival, the mass of the exploited will be able to cultivate themselves, to enjoy leisure, science, arts, which today are the privilege of a small minority. By generalizing this intellectual development, by freeing social relations from the imprisonment of material and moral misery, humanity will finally be able to reveal its full potential: how many Archimedes, Mozarts, and Marie Curies will we discover then? In the words of Trotsky: “Socialism will mean a leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom, also in the sense that today’s humanity, full of contradictions and without harmony, will pave the way for a new and happier race.”