How metaphors shape our understanding of AI

In this series, we delve into the wondrous world of AI metaphors. They can help us grasp different aspects of AI. In doing so, we have also provided an accessible introduction to the philosophy of technology. To learn more about the sixteen metaphors, simply click on the images below (we'll be publishing one article a week). To learn more about the series, continue reading below.
1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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When Artificial Intelligence is brought up in a discussion, it branches out into myriad directions and adopts varying meanings. To some, AI embodies nothing more than a tool purposed for human endeavors—a captivating tool, yet a tool nonetheless. Others perceive the dawn of genuine forms of intelligence. Likewise, when some talk about in terms of ‘robot’ or ‘chatbot’, they mainly point to the resemblance between ‘us’ and ‘it’. Others want to avoid this anthropomorphism at any cost and have started to call artificial intelligence alien intelligence. 

Venture further into the discourse on AI's future impacts, and you'll encounter humanist hopes of AI relieving us from mundane labor, juxtaposed against grim foresights of novel forms of enslavement. This symbolizes the voice of the Machine, orchestrating tasks autonomously and liberating our organs from being tool-bearers, while paradoxically reducing us to mere gears within its vast apparatus, comparable to today's working class of data labelers in the AI industry

The diverse interpretations of AI also reflect the various ways in which we associate AI with our own existence. While a plethora of minds eagerly explores AI's boundless potential for human enhancement, a growing ensemble of AI scholars harbors the dread of AI heralding humanity's demise as they point to the existential risk of extinction. Some philosophers, on the other hand, might contend that this 'termination of the human' epoch has already been inaugurated in what they term as posthumanism. All very confusing, isn’t? 

So, although the term AI may hint at a technical consensus, and I guess there truly is one, it's surrounded in an opaque sphere of diverse understandings and meanings that transcend the scientific field of AI. The dialogues around AI often leave participants bewildered, stemming from the variance in worldviews and the implicit presuppositions that seldom surface in debates. It's a philosophical mire, frequently conflicting, and branching into divergent conceptualizations of humanity, technology, and their interrelation. 

This exploration into AI metaphors attempts to illuminate these hidden dimensions of AI, dissecting the lexicon and imagery employed in its discourse. We use all kind of words and images to describe AI, such as ‘artificial’, ‘tool’, ‘algorithm’, ‘chatbot’, ‘reasoning engine’, ‘intelligence’, ‘computing machine’, ‘stochastic parrot’, and many more, all in the hope we get a certain grasp on the multidimensional phenomenon. However, these metaphors aren't mere innocent analogies but bear underpinnings of ontologies, embodying distinct ways of thinking and speaking about their being and reality. 

By unraveling the worldview embedded within these AI metaphors and imagery, I aspire to unveil the complex narrative humans share with technology and to foster an awareness of the implicit conceptualizations of AI. This newfound perspective could be enlightening and offer fresh perspectives on the phenomenon, although it doesn't purport to offer definitions of AI technically. The aim is to underscore that each metaphor carries its merits, yet also inherent blind spots. For instance, describing AI as a 'tool', ushers us into a specific discourse, aiding in discerning opportunities and risks for humanity, yet concurrently tends to obscurecertain facets of AI, such as the fact that many AI systems are able to learn and ‘set’ their own goals. Accordingly, the ensuing exploration of sixteen metaphors doesn't claim a singular absolute metaphor nor does it present a comprehensive collection. It doesn't champion one metaphor over others as false. Rather, the truth resides in the capacity to keep that space unoccupied, something we always long for at FreedomLab.


What can you find on these pages? While each metaphor stands independently and can be read apart, a structural and thematic overlap binds them, offering a kaleidoscopic view into the multifaceted realm of Artificial Intelligence. Moreover, within and between each section, a discernable order and development emerges, transitioning from simplistic to more complex ideas, and from concrete to more abstract and speculative metaphors. At the same time, I have interlaced various philosophical perspectives and intellectual movements from the philosophy of technology into the array of metaphors. As a result, this work also serves as an accessible introduction to the philosophy of technology, articulated through metaphors and imagery. Upon completion, readers should possess not only a broad understanding of AI related topics but also a deeper insight into the varied discourses that permeate current discussions about AI, encompassing the realms of business, public life, and academia.

Each week, a new metaphor will be featured on the website, so it will take some time for the complete collection to be available online. Below you can find a short outline.

1. The Object

The initial part, dubbed 'the object’, consists of the first five metaphors. It asks the question what kind of metaphors we use to describe AI as a thing or object. Is AI best understood as a tool, a sophisticated computing machine, or perhaps should we label it a robot? If we name AI a tool, we emphasize the human purposes we can realize with the instrument. Accordingly, this also relates to the instrumental stance, in which technology is a simple means for human ends. If we shift our understanding to the image of the machine, we emphasize the object becoming an automaton which moves more independently and repetitively. The metaphor of a robot, in turn, originally signifies something akin to forced labor, thereby unveiling a different dimension of AI in terms of subordination and enslavement. 

Gradually, this section begins to complicate the 'thingness of the thing' by scrutinizing the metaphors of intelligence and medium, thereby unveiling novel avenues to comprehend technology, particularly relevant in the case of artificial intelligence. As the latest surge in artificial intelligence unfolds, a growing number of individuals are beginning to question whether our interaction with AI remains akin to our use of objects like hammers, cranes, or computers, or if we are now facing a new type of intelligence altogether. If we relate to such an entity, we typically refer to this not as an object, but as a subject. For many people, AI transcends a tool or a machine as these lack the ability to predict, reason or set goals autonomously, traits inherent to what we normally label intelligence. However, determining exactly what we mean when we say ‘this artificial thing is intelligent’ is not easily agreed upon, as explored in this section. 

Last, the medium metaphor diverges from the object or thing in front of us as well, spotlighting instead the relationship between humans and technology. The final metaphor of this first part subtly transitions from the object to the human subject interacting with it, concentrating on the co-constitution of human and technology. What is happening in between them? Media mediate, we could answer. For example, the way we experience the world and others alters when we listen to the radio compared to watching a television show. Our senses undergo a transformation using a different medium. Consequently, a genuine understanding of technology necessitates including the human element in the equation as well.

2. The Human

Subsequently, the second part, named ‘(deconstructing) the Human’, pivots towards the human-technology nexus. We ask the question how the self-image of the Human has changed through technology. This section starts with the artisan metaphor, reminding us that the original meaning of technics as technè referred not to an entity but to a skillful know-how. For Aristotle, the Greek word technè refers not to a thing but a form of knowledge: someone who knows how to build a house and has expertise in his domain, possesses a certain technè. Over the span of our lives, we all acquire various new skills and know-hows, but technological advancements also often force us to master new forms. In the realm of AI, these are often referred to as 21st-century skills, encompassing digital literacy or the more recent phenomenon of ‘prompt engineering’. Are you able to write a good prompt based on a certain ‘know-how’ of how chatbots work? 

In the first half of the 20th century, some thinkers started to confuse the classic distinction between nature on one side, including human beings, and the artificial on the other, including technological objects. Instead, they argue, humans are artificial by nature. Compared to other animals, we are deficient beings that have always needed technology to complement or realize ourselves. Inspired by an idea of Arnold Gehlen, we name this metaphor the Deficient Animal (Mängelwezen). 

This new perspective on the fundamental technological condition of human nature is both reflected and criticized in the intellectual movements that emerged in the late 20th century. Facing the opportunities afforded by digital technologies, contemplation on technology has given rise to new discourses on what it means to be human, including transhumanism and posthumanism. Henceforth, this part continues by exploring how this intimate human-technology nexus has morphed into new human figures in recent decades, termed by the metaphors of the Quantified Self (transhumanism) and the Cyborg (posthumanism). The first mainly points to the discourse of human enhancement and biohacking, adopting technological means to realize a better, healthier and happier human and reducing worldwide suffering and disease. The second, spoken very broadly, symbolizes the fact we all have become ‘hybrids’ of human and technology. Today, many see this as inevitable, because the digital age has fostered such a close bond with technology that we cannot separate them easily anymore.  This is not only true for obvious applications such as peacemakers. For example, when applied to AI, we as 'humans' don't merely use 'AI', but rather morph into one entity labelled by some as an ‘AI centaur’, comprising both a biological brain and an externalized artificial brain.

3. The World

The first section discusses the concrete technological object and the second section explores our human relationship to technology. In the third part, 'the world', we alter our lens and zoom out. Though the individualized human-technology relationship is crucial in understanding many facets of technology and AI, it's also wise to broaden our scope, grasping them from a more systemic and abstract viewpoint. Thus, we ask the question in which kind of systems technology is integrated. Using the Factory metaphor introduces industrial themes into the current discourse on artificial intelligence. This perspective allows us to examine assertions like 'data is the new oil' and the notion that algorithms—and by extension, the companies that control them—quietly dominate the globe. By turning our attention to the metaphor of the Cloud, we explore features like opaque algorithms and black box engineering, which spotlight the enigmatic and obscure attributes of digital technology that operate out of sight.

4. The Evolution

The initial three sections primarily attempt to grasp what the nexus of human-technology-world constitutes. In the fourth section, we continue this search but also introduce a forward-looking and speculative element. We explore how AI may develop and what kinds of metaphors we employ to understand and predict this evolution. This section thereby explores the prevalent use of evolutionary and biological language to understand technology and AI. Traditionally, we have often employed the organism as a counter narrative to fathom technology, primarily juxtaposing mechanisms to organisms. For instance, while machines exhibit repetitive behavior and cannot repair themselves, organisms are spontaneous and capable of regeneration. Yet, recent decades have witnessed a shift towards organic terminologies to comprehend technology. For example, AI systems are often called adaptive, capable of learning and evolution, and they exhibit emergent capabilities, categories typically reserved for organic entities. Thus, it is certainly worthwhile to investigate the metaphor of the Organism. Individuals who employ this type of language aim not just to describe AI's characteristics but also to hypothesize about its future trajectory, which is inherently uncertain as evolution itself is unpredictable and future systems may acquire increasingly 'emergent capabilities.' While humans may have various explicit intentions for AI systems, technology may also follow an evolutionary course independent of human design. Another radical position associated with this intellectual discourse is to radically embrace the alterity of AI. Instead of trying to categorize artificial intelligence somewhere on the spectrum of human or non-human, some have opted to call it Alien intelligence.

5. The Myth

In these last metaphors above, there is a juxtaposition of profound optimism and hope yet also deep-seated pessimism and anxiety about what the AI-dominated future holds. To grasp this typical dichotomy, we need to delve into history. Our collective narrative has long embodied a dual attitude toward technology; there's an allure and a sense of formidable power that comes with technological advances, yet there's also an enduring sense of concern and prudence that echoes through our European intellectual history. The fifth section interlaces these mixed sentiments with Western mythological themes. The trepidation surrounding modern AI and the concept of humans usurping divine roles are rooted in age-old European allegories that have shaped our viewpoint on technology for millennia. Here, we navigate from the ancient legend of Prometheus to the more recent narrative of Frankenstein, often alluded to by contemporary commentators.

Eventually, this segment delves into the convergence of technology and humans through a biological and religious lens, culminating with the intriguing hypothesis of technological singularity, amalgamating evolutionary with spiritual imaginary to depict a hypothetical juncture in time where humans and artificial superintelligence merge. For some individuals, the idea represents an 'ascension’, while for others it signifies the potential ‘annihilation’ of humanity.