Will the AI destroy us, or make us whole?

Elon Musk thinks AI will destroy us, unless he can stop it, yet another burden for a man who wants to take us to Mars in electric rocketships.

Others imagine a horrific scenario where an omnipotent future-AI creates perfect simulations of everyone who slowed its creation, on the theory that such behavior would retroactively incentivize its creation. (But go ahead, try to explain to someone that torturing a perfect simulation of themselves is just as bad as them being tortured. Don’t worry: I’ll wait.)

And there are still others who declare that while AI might be great for driving our cars and ranking our search results, it’ll never write a symphony, or a novel, or tell a joke, despite the fact that computers have already done each of these.

“But not that well,” those still others say. Well, that’s true, here’s a joke written by a computer: “I like my coffee like I like my war, cold.” It’s no Carlin, but neither are most jokes, not even by Carlin. So, sure, at first, the computers are going to need human editors — this joke is good, that joke is bad — but humans need that, too. That’s why comedians go to open mics: without feedback, who can tell what’s funny?

And if a professional comedian doesn’t know what’s funny before they try it out in front of an audience, how is a computer any different?

But we already know what will happen, because it’s already happening around us. The jokes don’t have to get better: we just have to get worse. “A computer will never write a symphony.” Okay, let’s assume you’re right: when is the last time you’ve been to a symphony? Probably a long while, and if I’m wrong, then you recognize that you’re not exactly representative. You probably take pride in it.

The kind of person who proclaims a computer will never write a symphony will probably admit that a computer could write a pop song. And here’s what I’m getting at: nobody was ever paid to make art, and they never will be, because there’s no money in art, and there never will be.

“But Greg, what about–” No. They were paid to produce content: content is what fills a container. And containers are commodities that can be bought and sold. Carlin’s art goes in books, the Beatles’ goes on records, etc. And that’s the only art that anybody is ever paid for. Bach was only paid because someone else had a cathedral they wanted to fill with organ music.

And here’s the issue: will a computer ever make art? Only if you preclude such a possibility by definition: art is made by humans, therefore a computer can never make art.

There’s another argument that seems to hold up: sure, a computer can make art, but who makes the computer? Even if the answer is “another computer” (as it usually is), somebody had to make that computer, right? (At least at some point up the chain.)

And this is the future we’re hurtling toward, no question: descendents of descendents of human-made computers making art. And sure, the long-dead computer scientist gets the credit (and thankfully so, or we’d have to surrender another piece of humanity to the machines), but that doesn’t do a lot for a kid who wants to make a living as a writer.

But here’s the issue, and it’s a central one, one that I’ll state here but return to several times: Why the fuck would you need to make a living in a world where computers can do everything but make art?

People are already machines. That’s my thesis. I’ll come back to it eventually.