Human being, as a self-absorbed species, tend to perceive ourselves as the most superior organism on the planet. The apex predator among apex predators.
This trope is is found throughout our popular culture, and often explains our relationship with other animals and the environment around us. The notion of dominance can even be found in the Bible, with humans being created in the image of the creator, specifically so that they could rule (רְדּוּ֩) over the world (Gen 1:26). In contrast, many Indigenous cultures to North America perceive a more harmonious and interdependent relationship with the others around us.
The notion of dominance may not in fact be correct, and it’s quite possible that bacteria or ants are better contenders for the most superior species. If we define dominance by absolute and complex intelligence though, there are not other true comparators to date. The presence of humans has effectively prevented any true competitors, with other similar species such as Neanderthals and Denisovans being absorbed into our populations. This may change though with the development of artificial intelligence, which may reveal new and unanticipated forms of intelligent expression.
For now, most applications of artificial intelligence are still modelled after human intelligence, largely because users still have the need to understand or control (alternatively, to dominate) the algorithms they create. In contemplating the emerging “relationship” humans may have with algorithms, some cultural precedents from our history may provide some guidance.
In Ashkenazi Jewish mysticism, the notion of an animated being, created by humans through spiritual techniques, exists in various folk traditions. This being, termed a “golem” (גלמ), is capable of moving and following commands of its creator, but cannot speak and does not have a soul. The first mythic human, Adam, was considered a golem until he was given a soul. Though created in a similar physical form or image as a human, a golem was never truly alive, as it failed to have this crucial soul.
This past week, I used the template of the golem and some of its mythology to explore a few ethical dimensions in the development of artificial intelligence at the Thomson Rivers University SLS Conference, in a talk on “Ghosts in the Machine: Artificial Intelligence.”
When the golem of the Jewish ghettos would get out of control, as they sometimes would, its creators were compelled of course to stop it. Tradition...