The concept of ‘technocene’ is not novel; in fact, there are lots of writings on this concept. The Technocene age holds the premise that we are not in the Anthropocene age any longer – technology is overwhelming in that it is around us, with us everywhere, and we are attached to it to such a degree that our dependence on it has gained primacy beyond basic needs. Technology itself is tilting more and more towards embedding itself with mind and body.
This talks to a vision that James Lovelock noted in his book, NovaCene, namely that the next revolution in technology is about how the vast amount of information at our disposal collapses the gap between nature, biology, social organisation and technology.
Lovelock was alluding to an age of hyper- intelligence, which has long been egged on by the futurist Ray Kurzweil, suggesting that artificial intelligence (AI) will accomplish singularity – a point of superintelligence explosion that becomes unstoppable and reaches the nadir of constant self-improvement. The Singularity itself rules the world.
The Technocene is a result of more than 500 years of systematic science. In the West, the philosopher Francis Bacon was the first to envisage organised science as a tool of power. The relation between knowledge and power is also captured in the concept of the Panopticon put forward by Jeremy Bentham – a sort of all-seeing and omnipresent surveillance device using the scientific method to control society.
The role of technology in society has been an ongoing inflection point among a variety of thinkers, with modern industrialism bringing into sharp focus the tensions between technology at scale, the role and meaning of work and social relations.
Historically, the Luddite revolt (1812) symbolises the conflict between machine and human labour. In the twenty-first century, Ted Kaczynski, who recently passed away, mounted a lone anti-technology campaign. Kaczynski took a more universal approach to attacking technology in that he believed it would come to rule human behaviour.
Professor Harold James, of Princeton University, in the US, wrote an op-ed piece on new developments in AI in Project Syndicate, noting: “AI will fundamentally reshape individuals’ core social and political beliefs, including about the nature and role of the state.” AI is already on its way there. These concerns are shared by former Google computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton, who warned that AI poses an existential risk to life – perhaps even more than climate change in the immediate future.
Other thinkers, such as economists Daren Acemoglu and Simon Johnson, who recently wrote Power and Progress (confession: I have not read the whole book yet) also draw us into a critique of techno-optimism and the continuance of the divide between such optimism and reaching the apex of prosperity. Their main thesis is that technological revolutions tend to favour a technological aristocracy, and the only way in which technology benefits everyone else, despite the hyper-optimism about its benefits, is when it is accompanied by social pressure and greater accountability.
The Technocene at present is on the steroids of technophilia – a moment of unchecked hyper-enthusiasm.
However, the power of Large Language Models is starting to raise alarm bells, as is the way in which interest in the use of Chat-GPT is spreading like wildfire.
Interestingly, one of the early founders of the ChatBot, Joseph Weizenbaum, designed the bot to role-play a psychotherapist. Weizenbaum called the chatbot ELIZA and later in life turned against the technology to remark eventually that AI is an “index of the insanity of our world”.Human Programming
AI is not conscious: it is not a being and it is not intelligent without human programming. The enduring process of engaging AI is that human interaction with a machine imbues it with human-like characteristics – it is not human but feels entirely human-like in its responsiveness to human requests.
Jeff Hawkins, the author of A Thousand Brains: A new theory of intelligence, reminds us that we must be careful in attributing to AI the quality of general intelligence – all it is is a hyper-statistical machine with very strict domains of intelligence but near impossible to have the general intelligence humans and other biological life forms are capable of. Human intelligence has the capacity to take on other skills, unlike AI machines, which have to be trained on large data; even if they become better at doing this than humans, they are incapable of general intelligence.
In the period of the Luddites, all machines could do was displace human labour but AI as a general-purpose technology does something more – not only does it potentially have labour displacement effects but it can also reorganise perceptions of the world and social relations.
Disinformation is a key component of elites manufacturing consent and its utility is seductive. AI in democracies enables autocratic tendencies to grow through manufactured consent.
AI can be a tool of manipulation and deception. It can reaffirm bias, inflame tendencies that are destructive and break the possibility of rational and respectful public engagement.
Public opinion manipulation, on the steroids of AI prodding, with Pavlov-like inducements, shows how manipulation in public discourse can produce voter outcomes that do not always favour the national interest. The power of this was demonstrated by the work of Cambridge Analytica during the Brexit vote. The AI machines that were used at the time were primitive, compared with what is available now and what is still to come.
If left unchecked, the Technocene may well be the ultimate existential risk. But, unlike powerful nuclear bombs, which only few people could make and possess, AI technology is in the hands of anybody who wants to play around with it. We are not at a fork in the road – we are hurtling in a particular direction. We are not yet certain as to whether we can stop the unstoppable treadmill of the new Technocene.