Saturday July 20, 2024

(A)I think, therefore I am

Digitalization of world, or what people call ‘transformation of world into a global village’, has added new dimension to human connectivity

By Furqan Ali & Abdullah Ahmed
June 22, 2024
An eerie AI image. — X/@devrimb
An eerie AI image. — X/@devrimb

In a world where our digital avatars often overshadow our real selves, the quest for authenticity has never been more critical.

Consider Furqan, who curates a polished persona online as @Furqan_A, distinctly different from his offline identity. While both are the same person, their perspectives, bearings, and overall personalities can differ significantly.

The digitalization of the world, or what people call ‘the transformation of the world into a global village’, has added a new dimension to human connectivity. Now, everyone can openly express themselves without fear of being judged. People share what they think, support, defy, or otherwise propose things they might be wary of expressing in the non-pixeled world. Thus, in a way, almost everyone on the digital landscape has morphed into a duality, with the ‘real’ self living in a ‘non-real’ world.

Recently, another wave has been introduced by the AI boom. The impact of AI on humanity has been phenomenal, especially since the advent of ChatGPT. The scale of disruption and adaptation by which AI is being adopted by society is impressive to all of us. It seems impossible for anyone to remain indifferent to this Copernican Revolution.

Against the backdrop of formidable AI intervention in digital space, we all must have experienced a bizarre situation. During our everyday stroll on social media, we encounter a flood of superficial content from posters claiming originality despite the obvious archetypal diction and lacklustre structure – the hallmarks of chatbot-generated text. According to research, at least 70 per cent of the content on social media is being generated with the help of AI, and out of this total AI-assisted content, 21 per cent is created entirely by AI.

This coarse dispensation of technology not only diminishes the jubilance of reading but also decimates intellectual engagement of any sort. Moreover, the fascinating aspect of the daily digital routine is the audience’s response: despite the artificiality of these reflections, they engage in a cycle of grotesque mimicry. In a quid pro quo, the comment section often mirrors the AI-generated content of the post it is responding to.

It is imperative to underscore that the tradition of mimicry is not solely due to the rise of chatbots, though it is incited by the radical convenience; this behaviour has been manifested time and again. For instance, in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, Professor Lockhart, who was supposed to be the insurmountable defender against dark arts, was actually a fraud who bagged accolades by mimicking other adept magicians and erasing their memories, thus claiming their work as his own. Albeit, his supposed excellency was quickly shattered, like a house of cards, to his students and spectators alike when combating feeble pixies (small, bright blue, mischief-making magical beasts) in the classroom.

Likewise, just as Lockhart’s farcical excellence crumbled when faced with real challenges, AI-generated content often lacks depth and originality. Yet people interestingly find AI-generated content superior, without understanding the inner workings of the technology. These ubiquitous bots operate on two phenomena: classification, which involves identifying patterns from existing data, and regression, which entails extrapolating based on previously identified patterns.

As a result, unlike humans, who are unparalleled in creativity and fomenting novel musings, Gen-AI is not ‘generative’ per se. The irony here is nothing short of stupefying. In essence, to use an analogy, we are humans mimicking a monkey – which in turn has been mimicking human-generated literature – yet we are awe-struck by the apparent prestige of the latter.

The pressing question then is: what is ‘authenticity’ in the post-AI era? When we talk about being original or authentic, we do not mean creating an entirely new form (like the language we speak). The form can be adorned, as great poets do; rather, the focus is on the novelty of the ‘content’. While one can borrow content from various sources and eclectically synthesize what one considers to be the most ‘true’ (without gross imitation), it should bear the ‘magical’ touch or the originality that one has crystallized through years of erudite learning. “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken,” said Oscar Wilde, fittingly.

Naturally, the next question would be: Why do people engage in this erratic behaviour, or rather, why are people not “being themselves”? If one critically dissects this ailment, there are two contributing factors: first, a slothful attitude towards understanding. People are not willing to understand in depth because it is a demanding endeavour, taking years, in some cases, to comprehensively grasp a concept and then form an informed exposition.

As Hegel expounded in the Preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, “To judge a thing that has substance and solid worth is quite easy, to comprehend it is much harder, and to blend judgement and comprehension in a definitive description is the hardest thing of all.” So, the easy way out is to mimic whatever has an intellectual form and serves one’s predisposition.

This is the point where AI has unabashedly reinforced, as one now only needs a single prompt to generate content rather than ransacking the overarching literature and achieving the ability ‘to blend judgement and comprehension’.

The second reason, and not a mutually exclusive one, is the prevalent urge to objectify oneself as an enviable object – a pristine mortal to whom anything second-rate is utterly obnoxious and unrelated. Superficial, presentable posts, followed by numerous reactions and comments as tokens of appreciation, serve to adorn one as an appealing object. Simpletons may go to any extent to quell their obsession with the same including copy-pasting AI, without any ‘magical touch’ at all.

Given all this, what should one be doing to achieve true ‘authenticity’? Let AI be a collaborator, not an armchair creator. There should not be any room for gross mimicry to thrive; rather, a more nuanced approach of adaptation, recontextualization, and augmentation is what we should all strive for. Sci-fi writer Joanna Maciejewska captures this sentiment well: “I want AI to do my laundry and dishes so that I can do art and writing, not for AI to do my art and writing so that I can do my laundry and dishes.”

We must learn to “be ourselves” to proliferate creativity and reflect the true richness of human experience. There are no shortcuts if we want to add value to the overarching literature our predecessors left for us. By prioritizing genuine expression and dedicated learning, we can ensure that our non-pixeled selves own and profess our authentic ‘I’ in an unwavering way, rather than falling into the trap of superficial mimicry that is the ‘AI-ed I’.

Furqan Ali is a policy fellow at Learner’s Republic and serves as an advisory associate at a firm based in Peshawar.

Abdullah Ahmed is a policy fellow at Learner’s Republic and a data science and AI trainee at Atomcamp.