Book of the Week: The Tyranny of Algorithms by Miguel Benasayag
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
AI is too often either given as the solution for all our troubles or as a catalyst for the end of humanity. But what does “artificial intelligence” really mean? And what does machine computing have to do with our freedom? The answers of these questions and so many others are given by Miguel Benasayag. Easy to understand, this book is structured as a conversation with anthropologist Régis Meyran.
The Tyranny of Algorithms was published by Europa Editions and translated by Steven Rendall
The philosopher Miguel Benasayag takes us on a journey of reason where we go back to the origins of so-called Western rationalism and of what we nowadays call artificial intelligence. We understand that making analogies between the machine and the human body is what led us to call wrongly an AI an “intelligence”, while it is just a machine that cannot even interpret the meaning of its own calculations. We also understand the threats that the machine poses towards our individual freedom. Almost as a fortune teller, the machine can predict someone’s future action by collecting data en masse.
Yet, in The Tyranny of Algorithms, Benasayag does not enter into a “collapsologist” ideology, neither does he adhere to a “transhumanism” one. Rather than a tabula rasa, Miguel Benasayag invites us to accept living with the machine and to keep taking action, even if we are uncertain of the result as we cannot know what is going to happen. While we feel the emergency to consider the place of the machine in our life, we do not give into panic or into a resigned attitude. The book ends by considering a slightly optimistic here and now, and future, where it is our turn to take action to fight back the danger.
About the author
Miguel Benasayag is a philosopher, psychoanalyst, and epistemology researcher. Born in Buenos Aires in 1953, he joined the resistance against the military junta and was arrested and imprisoned for four years. After his release he moved to France, where he became a researcher, clinician, and activist in the “new radicalism.” He is an author and columnist
About the translator
Steven Rendall has translated more than fifty books from French and German, two of which have won major translation prizes. He is professor emeritus of Romance Languages at the University of Oregon and editor emeritus of Comparative Literature. He currently lives in France.
Read some extracts from The Tyranny of Algorithms
To begin by setting the scene, explain your criticism of the expression “artificial intelligence” (AI).
In reality, what we call “artificial intelligence” is very badly name. In this expression, the word “intelligence” is only a metaphor. Even if its calculative ability exceeds that of human beings, artificial intelligence is incapable of giving a meaning of its own calculations. It is essential to distinguish the machine’s functioning from the intelligence of living beings, because living intelligence is not a calculating machine. It is a process that articulates affectivity, corporeality, and error and that presupposes the presence of desire and a consciousness, of one’s own long-term history. Human intelligence is not conceivable independently of all our other cerebral and bodily processes. To be intelligent, you have to have a body: the body is the site of passions, drives, long-term memory; it is where the memory of my parents of grandparents is reincarnated, where even the memory of the species’ evolution is conveyed!
How does the Galilean project of mathematicizing nature differ from the vast digitalization we are witnessing today? (pp.22-23)
Mathematical language like the world of language in general and that of writing actually seeks to make the territory resemble the map. However, it does not deny the otherness of the territory, which continues to exist in a conflictual relationship with the map. And this dynamic impossibility that limit and modify the map in return. Conversely, in the digital world, the principle “everything is information” considers territories as a simple mode’ of the map’s existence. The violence of digitalization thus resides not in some project of domination, but rather in the negation of all forms of alterity and of singular identity to make room for a dimension of pure abstraction. Anything in the territory (the reality of bodies, of ecosystems...) that resists attempts at modelling thus becomes, in the world of digital models, “noise in the system.”
The illusion of an algorithmic reality thus ignores what Alan Turing already warned us against when he asserted that even in arithmetic, not everything is calculable. A characteristic specific to every complex set is precisely the impossibility of representing all its elements – that is, the non-representability and incomplete calculability of the slightest biological organism. Thus, the problem resides in AI or in the digital model, but in the interpretation of their power, which seeks to absorb the territory into the map.
But how did we arrive at this misleading association of the neural with the cybernetic? (pp. 40-41)
It is in no way limited to cybernetics. In Descartes’s time, it was believed that the organism functioned like a clock. In every period, people have wanted to see technological mechanisms as reflecting the structure of the living being. In the eighteenth century, the age of automatons, humans were seen as automatons. In the age of cybernetics, we see the living being as a circulation of information. This notion is found in many domains, such as neurology, immunology, and cellular biology. Research in these disciplines reveals feedback mechanisms that allow the exchange of information via circuits. Today, biological knowledge is modeled and stored in accord with the rules of computer science.
But isn’t knowledge often produced on the basis of analogies? After all, this analogy between the living being and the computer is very practical. (p.41)
The association between the brain and the wiring of a machine actually begins with the work of Alan Turing and his famous 1950 article entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” [Mind 49 (1950), 433–460.] However, on this point he very clearly declared that the brain is not a machine with discrete states.
How is it possible to be delighted about that [the brain being simplified because AI has taken over many cognitive tasks]? (p.76)
Humans have delegated throughout history. Since the 1980s, most people have even seen democracy as a way to get out of having to think about situations because they have voted. That is why it is ridiculous to count on being able to export so-called democratic institutions to non-Western countries. Imagine that we want to export democracy to Iraq: you will find Sunnites, Shiites, Kurds, and other parties. Can you imagine a Shiite man studying a Sunnite’s political program to see if it might suit him? That would be ridiculous. But if we think about it carefully, we can say exactly the same thing about our Western individualist societies! Most people vote as they are told to, by a sort of inertia. To conclude on post-democracy, we understand today to what point democracy is a myth that is collapsing. Even the idea of an individual, rational citizen is a myth. That is why we have to revamp our way of seeing political action. We have to rethink what it means to act.
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