The world was startled in the past few months by the abilities now achieved by artificial intelligence. Chatbot programs can write competent sonnets on command and whole essays on almost any conceivable topic. This is an advance over the wonder expressed previously over computer supremacy at mere chess. Immediately, the public asks when these robots will qualify as humans dictating affairs, which in turn, raises the profound question of what in fact constitutes humanity or is essential to it. What must we know and protect?
Command of language has long been cited as a distinctive capacity of human beings, but those who are intent on narrowing the distance between man and lesser animals, let alone machines, have long made a game of demonstrating that donkeys can count, and monkeys can master sign language. Whales are intelligent; dogs have emotions. It’s true that the human mastery of symbolic forms is distinctive in this universe, and we are adept at communication, but it is noted, animals, too, communicate. So maybe, as with animals, it is just a matter of degree between people and educated machines, with no qualitative differentiation. When the AI robots equal us in intelligence or language, will they then be “human”?
A Brown University professor of computer science, Michael Littman, was on the affirmative side in an interview in AI magazine: “After all, humans are just a particular kind of machine.” The rise of AI brings to the fore the fundamental matter of the definition of the human, and the nature of the qualitative divide between man and machine.
A recent essay by John O. McGinnis settled on the possession of morality, the inescapable sense of right and wrong, as the essential and unique human attribute. Maybe dogs feel shame and elephants are loyal, but that is hardly a code of ethics, let alone an injunction such as “do as you would be done by” or Kant’s moral imperative: “Act only on that maxim that you can consistently will to be a universal law.” Can robots be trained to make moral distinctions? No doubt they can and will be, after ingesting tens of thousands of examples of right and wrong. But even with this, won’t they still lack sentiment? Will we be able to appeal for mercy to a robot judge in a courtroom? Will our judge feel compassion? Can a data-based government offer clemency? Can a robot exercise judgment as opposed to calculation?
These are disturbing, even frightening, matters because we are all aware of a scientific mindset that thinks superficially only of mechanical advances not of tenderness and sympathy in the human realm. Will the vibrations (or call it communication) of a human mother singing a lullaby to her baby be superseded by a robot?
Thou and I
The brilliant logician Alan Turing, beginning in the 1950s, famously proposed that we would know when robots were human-like, that is, can think and be intelligent when we can converse with them naturally to the point that we will be unaware we are in fact conversing with a machine. Long ago he confidently foresaw huge advances in machine learning, and with powerful reasoning he directly refuted skeptics. His emphasis, however, was on conversation, informal language, or even professional discussion, but not, it must be noted, on what the historian and social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973) called speech.
Rosenstock-Huessy could hardly have imagined the technological ingenuity that has brought us to this moment of confusion. He commented simply on what constitutes the essentially human, on what is at the roots of human society, although that was not his central theme. Conversation, chatter, talk, language, communication, and philosophical and technical discussion are all at a lower level than speech because the talk is not binding, and such spoken words, mere words, do not demand a response or a commitment. “I only begin to speak,” Rosenstock-Huessy said, “when I submit myself to my own words.”
Speech between humans requires, first of all, personal names, the distinctive attribute we are given at birth that identifies us singularly throughout our entire life. Names also extract us from the so-called natural world. Personhood is conferred by naming and then by direct address: Hello, infant Mary or infant John; welcome to the world of people––not just of material things, not just of all living creatures, but to the company of humanity specifically.
Rosenstock-Huessy pointed to the well-known fact that compared to the development at birth of other mammals, humans come into the world totally helpless, about nine months prematurely by comparison. Those first nine months out of the physical womb he called the socializing womb, the womb of speech, when we are constantly addressed by name and called into being, as one might say. It is the constant addressing of Mary or John that confers upon them an awareness of self––I am Mary, I am John––that is, the transition from being addressed as “you” or “thou” to the awakening of Mary’s and John’s responsive “I.” We are commanded in infancy and childhood not only to “eat,” to “say thank you,” to “go to sleep,” but also to “come forth,” to “be.” The circumstances of our early childhood give us, first, a past and present, that is, a surrounding bed of nurturing, and then an awareness of another dimension of time, the future, the image of our individual named selves becoming (or, more elaborately, becoming something in the world, an expectation).
Morality may be essential to humanity, as McGinnis observed, but it is grounded in a sense of self, and that selfhood was brought into being initially by direct address: you Mary, you John, which is then followed by their “I shall.” Everyone is familiar with Martin Buber’s famous book I and Thou. Rosenstock-Huessy, who was a lifelong friend of Buber’s and himself a premier dialogical thinker, criticized the Buber formulation on the grounds that empirically “thou” in life comes before “I”; that is, the second-person in grammar, defined as the imperative––[You:] Go; [You:] Listen––comes first in human development and human affairs, followed by the first-person “I” response. I and Thou should be more accurately formulated Thou and I. This process of call and response continues throughout life.
Machines may have clocks, atomic clocks, but can they anxiously or hopefully anticipate or fear the future? Will they be able to reflect upon their pasts, with both joyful and regretful memories? Can they know they will die and “live their lives,” so to speak, with that acute awareness? Time is of the essence. For Rosenstock-Huessy we may occupy space, but we live in the midst of time. For humans, time is not the physicists’ fourth dimension of space; it has its own far more vital three dimensions of past, present, and future. “Man is peculiarly a temporal being,” Rosenstock-Huessy said, “ever but an exile and a pilgrim in the world of space.”
Because of the relentless undifferentiated flow of the physicists’ time, we humans lock in moments to humanize that stream. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, we establish national holidays and family holidays, and we have calendars that keep track of where we are in the year two-thousand-and-twenty-three. A couple of millennia is obviously just a blip in geological let alone astronomical time, but this is our common (formerly Christian) era, distinguished from meaningless tick-tock, tick-tock. Machines can dazzlingly count and calculate, but will they be prone to celebrate meaningfully, to commemorate? “Men conquered time when they began to speak,” Rosenstock-Huessy reminded us.
Essential to speech is what is sometimes called performative speech, words that not only communicate, but also effect change. It is not mere language when a judge pronounces to an indicted felon the verdict of “guilty.” Something dour inevitably follows. Vows and declarations are similar. The bride’s “I do” changes her life forever. Promises, declarations, and other spoken commitments rooted in moments of time, even mundane appointments, fall in this category.
Rosenstock-Huessy argued in the Origin of Speech, written in the 1940s, that language, in fact, originated with such formal speech, with commandments, not with chatter or a baby’s utterance. It was the urgency, probably, of bringing order into the chaos of tribal life that led to the uniquely human characteristic of definitive speech. The institution of marriage, for example, with its vows and commitments, had to be invented, after all, and the result was practical: curbing violent male rivalry and curtailing promiscuity that left no sense of biographical lineage or ancestry.
Can a machine have a sense of responsibility, that is, to be responsive both to what is inherited from ancestors and to what we owe our descendants? Such essential human traits are embedded with us because we live in time. “What is the future,” Rosenstock-Huessy asked. “It is that for which it is right to sacrifice the present.” Can such language be comprehensible to a machine that lives in astronomical time?
Speech is not “natural.” It is better understood as super-natural or miraculous, despite the protocol or canons of natural science that find such a formulation inadmissible. “Nature,” Rosenstock-Huessy wrote, “is the world minus speech. … Voices call us into life.” Water, earth, and wind concern us “only after membership in society and participation in language secure us roped fast above the abyss of nature.” Speech, not mere communication, continuously makes possible the accomplishments of science itself.
Mechanical, technological, and material “progress” can be overwhelming and even dangerous if we categorize it wrongly as somehow essential to our fundamental well-being. We are grateful for innovations that reduce taxing physical labor, offer convenience, reduce our susceptibility to disease and bodily pain, and counter premature death. But such positive change is not automatic. It relies on a substrate of call and response, that is, on direct address and imperatives, on inspiration followed by answering and action, or commitment. “The imperative not only commands the listener; it at the same time lights up an alley of time into the future. A trail into time is beaten by the logic of any order given.” A high tension follows: “Will this command be followed up and fulfilled? The term ‘fulfillment’ used in this connection is significant. By the imperative, time is formed into a cup, still empty but formed for the special purpose of being filled with the content demanded by the order.”
“The scientist who muses over a new formula has accepted the commands: ‘There shall be science,’ ‘Be thou a scientist,’ and ‘Help science over its obstacle on this day.’” Such thoughts are, of course, not an articulated part of any person’s daily life. They are not even of one’s own making. There is in human society “a continuum of expectation and fulfillment,” Rosenstock-Huessy wrote, “which we are accustomed to take for granted. But it has been built up and has daily to be rebuilt.”
We refer here to the scientist, but it is no different in any other creative venture—the novelist and poet, the engineer, the visual artist, the mathematician. They look back on their best work with wonder that it came about. It is never the product simply of intention or deliberation but of inspiration; we are carried along as vessels of the “spirit,” and the spirit for Rosenstock-Huessy (including the holy spirit) is no more than the interconnectedness of speech through millennia impelling us forward. It always transcends the individual.
There is an old theological position that dates back centuries and was certainly prominent in the seventeenth century––the belief in continuous creation. God indeed created the world in six days, but He is still creating it; every moment He concurs with what happens. This may not speak so well of God, given the ghastly horrors that man has inflicted on man and still regularly inflicts. Yet Rosenstock-Huessy adhered to a version of this belief, defining God as “the power that makes us speak.” You and I are thus necessary for the creation of a better future. By speaking we can and do re-create the world every day, with words that in some instances resonate and effect change for centuries. This fact is far more sociological than theological.
It must be noted, too, that the history of human culture, our slow progress, is far more revolutionary than evolutionary. As distinguished from Darwin, acquired cultural characteristics, happily, are transmitted to the next generation, although they are sometimes lost and need to be recaptured continually. Reform often consists of recovery and restoration. We have to look back often to see what has unfortunately lapsed while at the same time welcoming the new contributions of each generation.
Much of what is said here applies to words more than action. But robots incorporating the technology of chatbots can, of course, follow commands. “Drive to the market, get bread and milk, and be here before 5:00 p.m.” They will answer, “Yes, sir.” If the order is, “You must learn French,” the robot will say, “I already know French and one hundred other languages.” What if, however, the command is: Prepare to join the priesthood or the professoriate or to become a social worker? We are then in the area of aspiration, a uniquely human stage in the shaping of a life. Whatever the aspiration, it comes with a sense of our mortality, the knowledge that whatever I aim to do, I will have only a limited number of decades in which to do it. The robot has no time sense of that kind.
Clearly, there is more to being human than facile intelligence and communication skills. We can cope better with the advent of robots and chatbots not by relinquishing our superiority but by appreciating the underlying structure of what constitutes our humanity.