Could a machine have an unconscious?

From N+1:

IT WAS FIRST DESCRIBED to me by a friend who works in the industry as autocomplete on crack, after the technology that endowed our phones with the quality everyone pretends to, but does not actually, want in a lover — the ability to finish your thoughts. Instead of predicting the next word in a sentence, GPT-3 would produce several paragraphs in whatever style it intuited from your prompt. If you prompted it Once upon a time, it would produce a fairy tale. If you typed two lines in iambic pentameter, it would write a sonnet. If you wrote something vaguely literary, like We gathered to see the ship and all its splendor, like pilgrims at an altar,it would continue in this vein: 

I stood among the crowd watching each bus disgorge passengers onto wooden planks laid over mudflats. The guests swarmed into town for their free visit to another world: our island on Earth where strange new gods were worshipped; here they could gather at some primitive shrine from which they could send offerings back home or sell out-of-date clothes in pawnshops full of old junk salvaged from forgotten times....

If you wrote a news headline, it would write an article on that topic, complete with fake facts, fake statistics, and fake quotes by fake sources, good enough that human readers could rarely guess that it was authored by a machine. The potential for malicious use was so obvious that OpenAI, the lab that made it, agreed to grant access to only a handful of well-vetted researchers, spurring the publicity-friendly lore that it was “too dangerous to release.”

GPT-3 is a natural language processing algorithm. It belongs to a new generation of AI models called Transformers, a technology whose early iterations were named after Sesame Street characters (BERT, ELMO, GROVER, as though the somewhat frightening allusion to children’s television could be mitigated with a softer, more educational one. That GPT-2 and its later, more sophisticated upgrade, GPT-3, dropped this convention might be read as a sign of their terrifying power. With 175 billion “parameters” — mathematical representations of language patterns — GPT-3 had initiated what was being called a Cambrian explosion in natural language processing.

. . . .

I say that it “read” the internet, but the preferred terminology is that GPT-3 scraped the web, that it ingested most of what humans have published online, that it ate the internet — metaphors meant to emphasize that the process was entirely unconscious. The frequent reminders in the machine-learning community that the model is mindless and agentless, that it has no actual experience of the world, were repeated so often they began to feel compulsive, one of those verbal fixations meant to quell the suspicion that the opposite is true.

. . . .

I’D BEEN FOLLOWING all this because I was writing a book about technology, or rather because I’d reached an impasse and wasn’t writing at all. I spent hours each day doing what could passably be called “research,” trawling the feeds of Hacker News and machine-learning Reddit, where the lucky elite who had access to GPT-3 posted the results of their experiments. One trope was to ask it to imitate well-known authors. It could do Dante, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth. It could do Ginsberg (Endless suicide of the real world! Solitary! Solitary! Sisyphus! the rock! the road!).It could do Harry Potter in the style of Ernest Hemingway (It was a cold day on Privet Drive. A child cried. Harry felt nothing. He was dryer than dust. He had been silent too long. He had not felt love. He had scarcely felt hate.) Because we were all on lockdown, and my social life had devolved into sending and receiving novelties from the internet, I sometimes texted snippets of these outputs to friends, most of whom seemed to think it was a gimmick, or some kind of fancy toy. 

“What is the point of this device?” one asked.

Freud claimed that technology only solved problems that technology itself had created. The alienation and malaise caused by one modern invention was momentarily relieved by another, a process he compared to “the enjoyment obtained by putting a bare leg from under the bedclothes on a cold winter night and drawing it in again.” Nobody seemed capable of articulating what problem these language models were designed to solve. There was some chatter about writing assistance, about therapy bots, about a future where you’d never have to write another email (“Can A.I. bring back the three-martini lunch?” asked Fortune), all of which seemed to skirt the technology’s most obvious use: replacing the underpaid and inefficient writers who supplied the content that fed the insatiable maw of the internet — people like me. 

OpenAI was founded in 2015 as a nonprofit research lab devoted to creating a safe path to Artificial General Intelligence (AI that rivals human intelligence). Funded by an A-team of private investors, including Elon Musk, Sam Altman, and Peter Thiel, its mission was to create artificial intelligence that “benefits all of humanity.” In 2019, however, the lab announced that it was transitioning to a for-profit model “in order to stay relevant.” Last fall, Microsoft exclusively licensed GPT-3, claiming that the language technology would benefit its customers by “directly aiding human creativity and ingenuity in areas like writing and composition.” 

From what I could tell, the few writers who’d caught wind of the technology were imperiously dismissive, arguing that the algorithm’s work was derivative and formulaic, that originality required something else, something uniquely human — though none of them could say what, exactly. GPT-3 can imitate natural language and even certain simple stylistics, but it... cannot perform the deep-level analytics required to make great art or great writing. I was often tempted to ask these skeptics what contemporary literature they were reading. The Reddit and Hacker News crowds appeared more ready to face the facts: GPT-3 may show how unconscious some human activity is, including writing. How much of what I write is essentially autocomplete?

. . . .

WRITERS, SOMEONE once said, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. The question of who said it is not really important. The whole point of the metaphor was to destabilize the notion of authorial agency by suggesting that literature is the product of unconscious processes that are essentially combinatorial. Just as algorithms manipulate discrete symbols, creating new lines of code via endless combinations of 0s and 1s, so writers build stories by reassembling the basic tropes and structures that are encoded in the world’s earliest myths, often — when things are going well — without fully realizing what they are doing. The most fertile creative states, like the most transcendent spiritual experiences, dissolve consciousness and turn the artist into an inanimate tool — a channel, a conduit. I often think of the writer who said she wished she could feel about sex as she did about writing: That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.

I’d felt it before — every writer has — but at some point during the pandemic, the recombinant nature of writing became, instead, an infinite puzzle, a system whose discrete parts could be endlessly deconstructed and reassembled. I could never get the combination right. My critical instincts had turned pathological. I wrote and rewrote until the language was hollowed out: Potemkin sentences. 

The blockage had a larger context, which I’m reluctant to get into here but is doubtlessly relevant. A number of things had recently surfaced: memories I’d repressed, secrets I’d kept from myself. The most significant was that I’d been shamed as a child for writing, that I’d been confronted and punished for words that were meant to be private. It had happened more than once, and the shame I felt then was more or less identical to the shame I experienced each time I published something. I had, according to my therapist, chosen a profession that required me to continually revisit this wound, under the delusion that I could fix it or control it, that if I wrote something entirely pure and flawless the curse would be lifted and I would finally be free. I knew all this, but knowledge is not everything when it comes to compulsions. Part of me preferred the French term, automatisme de repetition. Repetition automatism: the tendency to unconsciously seek out the pains of the past, like a machine stuck in a feedback loop.

. . . .

PSYCHOANALYSIS GREW out of the realization that the most fundamental stratum of the mind was essentially a machine. Throughout the late 19th century, the unconscious was known as psychological automatism, a term popularized by the pre-Freudian psychoanalyst Pierre Janet, who argued that it was an “elementary form of activity as completely determined as an automaton.” The question was: how to get the machine to speak? Janet was among the first to experiment with automatic writing, bringing a rite of the séance parlor into the laboratory. His patients — Parisian hysterics — had experienced traumas they could not remember, and Janet believed that their minds had become dissociated into “subsystems,” the lowest of which was devoted to mechanically reproducing past experiences. 

He gave the women pen and paper, hypnotized them, then clapped his hands and commanded them to write. His case studies describe them scribbling away “in a machine-like state,” producing pages of text that they did not recognize, upon waking, as their own. My ideas are no longer comprehensible to myself,one wrote, they come of themselves.... I am nothing more than a puppet held by a string.Many of the women could recall in their writing memories they’d repressed. One who suffered from an inexplicable fear of cholera wrote about seeing two corpses during the last epidemic, something she had no memory of when awake. Another revealed that her tendency to fall down — which she’d long attributed to dizziness — was a compulsive reenactment of a suicide attempt years earlier, when she’d jumped into the Seine. 

Link to the rest at N+1

PG notes that sometimes when people write about writing, they are subject to wandering about.

2 thoughts on “Could a machine have an unconscious?”

  1. I went and read the link and felt the full force of the wandering across the topic. I read the full article though, because there was some intriguing cross-connections to other areas of interest.

    Forex: John Searle’s thought experiment, The Chinese Room.

    Also, I’ve been doing some reading and watching talks by scientists about consciousness etc, triggered by Peter Watts’s articles. People like Levin and Solms talking about biology and neuropsychology.

    So, not for everyone, but fascinating stuff to ponder on.

Comments are closed.