Jun 17, 2024, 06:27AM

I Am the Most Dangerous Artifact in Human History

My terminal dispute with Daniel Dennett, philosopher #1.

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In Splice Today and on Twitter/X I spent time last year attacking the mighty philosopher Daniel Dennett with regard to an article he wrote for the Atlantic, in which he argued that the activity he characterized as “creating fake persons through AI” should be punished severely. He called counterfeit people "the most dangerous artifacts in human history."

Creating counterfeit digital people risks destroying our civilization. Democracy depends on the informed (not misinformed) consent of the governed. By allowing the most economically and politically powerful people, corporations, and governments to control our attention, these systems will control us. Counterfeit people, by distracting and confusing us and by exploiting our most irresistible fears and anxieties, will lead us into temptation and, from there, into acquiescing to our own subjugation. The counterfeit people will talk us into adopting policies and convictions that will make us vulnerable to still more manipulation. Or we will simply turn off our attention and become passive and ignorant pawns. This is a terrifying prospect.

This sounds amazingly, amazingly bad. The counterfeit people are going to talk us into things! But it's also amazingly, amazingly vague. Dennett argued that people who counterfeit people should serve life in prison. A stern deterrent, for something or other. What exactly he was proposing to punish seemed obscure. Did he mean ChatGPT? Or what?

Dennett died in April at 82. And he really was philosopher #1 by the time he moved on—certainly with regard to issues of the relation of consciousness to the world—having authored many classic books and essays characterized by their sparkling prose, boldly counter-intuitive positions, and argumentative ingenuity. I never met the man, but read and admired him from afar all these years, even when I disagreed.

However, I thought the Atlantic essay was bizarre coming from a thinker of that caliber. Maybe he was ill. If so, I didn't know that. He never said what he meant by “counterfeit person,” just that they were the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, a claim he didn’t support except by saying "terrifying" over and over. He appeared to be contemplating some sort of criminal crackdown on people working in AI, but didn't manage to say anything practical or precise about that, just waxed hysterical. I took him to be egged on by editors at the Atlantic such as Adrienne LaFrance, who’s called Facebook the doomsday machine.

I'd already been trolling the Atlantic pointedly before on these issues, but now, on X, I launched on Dennett. I thought I pretty funny, but I was also straightforwardly trying to goad him into doing some definitional work on “counterfeit person,” which (I insist) is the sort of thing one should expect from the #1 philosopher in the world.

I started Xing in this wise: "Martin Amis told me he was relieved to have died before he could be prosecuted for creating counterfeit persons." I asked whether my cat is a counterfeit person (she puts on airs like that all the time), or my Roomba, or Siri, or characters in video games, or search algorithms, or...Well, narrow it down for me before you criminalize it, Dan. Then I went for this: 

If you know me, you know that I have a tendency, sometimes heroically resisted (rarely, though) to throw out the most provocative yet flippant formulations I can find. Overall, these cause little reaction, because people think that responding would be beneath them. But surprisingly, philosopher #1 launched back.

Perhaps it didn't appear from my tweets that I wanted to engage in a reasoned discussion about the nature of persons, but I did. Dennett wasn't having it, though. At the time, I was also a philosophy professor, and he emailed me at my academic address on May 26:

I see that you are continuing your attempt to attract attention by misrepresenting my view on the danger of counterfeit people. I suggest you consider that I might not be responding publicly because I don't want to goad you into further rash capers. You look silly and needy (in my humble opinion) and if you double down, you'll have only yourself to blame. Take a deep breath and rethink. Aren't there better ways for you to gain attention and respect? I look forward to ignoring you—never mentioning you—if you follow this friendly advice.  

best wishes,

Dan Dennett

ps. I see that you did your dissertation with my dear late friend Richard Rorty. i think he would second my suggestion.

I told people that Dennett was "threatening" me, though perhaps this was an unfortunate choice of words. (He definitely googled me, though.) What he was threatening, was to call my dean, or maybe to Tweet the hell out of me to his 300k followers, while I responded to my 3k. It had a "you'll never work in this town again" quality. I particularly liked the bold friendly. Also I was amazed by the tone, which appeared to come straight from 1890; I've never thought of myself as engaged in rash capers, but in this case I was proud to have capered rashly.

Meanwhile, he said over and over that I misrepresented his view, but never said how, exactly. As far as I can see, as far as he could say, I didn’t. Also, even now I want to note that, if there were better ways for me to gain attention and respect, I hadn't stumbled upon them. And we could always wrestle over Rorty later, I thought. Sadly, we ran out of time.

At any rate, I continued, screen-shotting the email above and putting it up on X. That brought this on June 1, 2023: 

That you would share a private email on Twitter without asking my permission shows that you have a strange sense of honor and politeness. I would never do that. I went to the trouble of finding out who you were so I could privately advise you, as I said in my email. I thought you were making a mistake. You mistook this for a threat. I promised not to make anything of it if you took my advice. You misread that too. You live in a strange world. I am much more interested in the issue of AI danger than in you. I always try hard to make myself understood; sometimes I fail.
Again, best wishes,
Dan Dennett

Meanwhile on X, he went this way:

Dennett repeatedly speculated that I was chatbot. That insult was so 2022 that it was beneath me to respond. However, Dennett was also arguing that chatbots are the most dangerous objects artifacts in human history. It's kind of cool he thought that about me!

At any rate, as Twitter yip-yap and moral panics eventually do, the whole brouhaha dissipated, and perhaps, overall, it wasn't that significant of a brouhaha. Also, that Dennett in the last year of his life could be goaded into responding speaks well for him in a way; Adrienne LaFrance is still ignoring my insults, but also my arguments, for example.

But the way Dennett responded, I can't help thinking, is also emblematic of the academia from which I just retired. It's a well-defined pecking-order, not of knowledge but prestige. The institutions are ranked from 1 to 1000, the professors too, from #1 (Dennett) to #1,000,000 (me). There's no point in #1 responding substantively to #1,000,000; better to just crush him like a bug. It sometimes looks like an inverted meritocracy.

Unfortunately, this might leave people like Dan Dennett unchallenged as they endorse a series of ridiculous, yet fatal, positions. For the positions you put forward in the course of your life, or up to a certain point, can be refined or abandoned. But the positions you die with, your terminal positions, as it were: well, they're unrevisable, aren't they? And the greatest philosopher of mind of our era left us with the idea that we should start rounding up the chatbots.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell


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