Is AI still artificial?

February 2, 2023

In a recent article, Italian philosopher Francesco Bianchini argues that the standard definition of “artificial” regarding AI has become obsolete. AI’s new technologies, methodologies and frameworks—such as neural networks and evolutionary algorithms—have brought the discipline closer to the field of biology, thereby diffusing the traditional demarcation between the “natural” and the “artificial”.

The “artificial” is generally thought of as that which is not occurring in the natural world, but is made by humans instead. AI is thus termed “artificial” because a) it is developed and controlled by humans, and b) its purpose is either to imitate intelligent human performance or achieve an ideal intelligent performance that corresponds to a human notion of “perfect” rationality.

However, AI saw exciting technological developments last year, becoming more creative, more self-supervised, and increasingly autonomous. And, moreover, newer approaches to AI took inspiration from biological structures beyond the human domain. In other words, AI seems to have escaped the clear-cut definition of “artificial”. Does this imply that AI is becoming “natural”, should we expand the definition of artificial or are we perhaps in need of a new label? Or, alternatively, should we simply stop thinking in terms of these categories and treat all of this as a continuum?

Burning questions:
  • The difference between the natural and the artificial is important to philosophers. Yet, is it also relevant for scientists, engineers or society in general?
  • We tend to have moral opinions about human actions (and hence the artificial), while we accept the natural world as it is. Would perceiving AI as “not-so-artificial” mean that we ask fewer ethical questions and be less critical of the use of AI?

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The Tool
Category: Objects
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: Objects
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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About the author(s)

With a background in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and a Master’s in History, Martine Dirkzwager Wu is intrigued by researching what the new conditions for the Humanities are in the age of the Anthropocene. In trying to understand a fundamentally unintelligible world, her thought process aims to be as critical as creative. She celebrates an era of post-truth in which knowledge can be traced through academic, but also natural and artistic networks.

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