The Man Who Sold the World
On March 31st, The New York Times published “The ChatGPT King Isn’t Worried, but He Knows You Might Be.” The subtitle of the article tells us that “Sam Altman sees the pros and cons of totally changing the world as we know it. And if he does make human intelligence useless, he has a plan to fix it.” The article goes on to casually drop more heart stopping tidbits when we are told that Altman says the technology was “inevitable” and compares himself to Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project. In other words, if he hadn’t done it, someone else would have. The author, Cade Metz, with not a little irony, goes on to describe Altman’s sprawling weekend home in Napa Valley when we are told that he was not “necessarily motivated by the money,” which becomes clear after the descriptions of vineyards and of cattle roaming on Altman’s ranch.
Now maybe it is because I have spent the last two decades teaching English that I have a skewed perspective of the world. And yes, I know it is not he alone, and I know that he is neither the first nor the last to push the limits of our world just for the challenge, if that is what I was meant to understand, but I also know we read and teach literature for a reason, although albeit probably less and less of it.
From Prometheus to Adam and Eve to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, there have been cautionary tales of men who thought that the pursuit of knowledge at the expense of a bit of our humanity “were but a small price to pay for dominion” (Shelly). And when Shelly’s characters tell us that all they want is to “satiate their curiosity with a sight of a part of the world never before visited” (Shelly) we are reminded with a chill down our spines of all the atrocities throughout history that were motivated by this seemingly simple desire of men. Let’s pretend for a moment that this is indeed all it is: to satiate curiosity, and let’s pretend that plain old greed is not the reason behind so much of the damage that has been done in the name of “progress” and that it was not Sam Altman’s motivating factor. I would, personally, like to live in a world where there is still a chance to be curious.
I have had the honor of teaching hundreds of children by this point in my life, and I want them to be able to be curious too. I wake up in the morning and go to work with at least the aspiration to inspire curiosity and wonder, against all odds in a world where children have seen it all on TikTok and YouTube, and with the small hope of achieving the nearly impossible feat of getting kids to still want to read the texts that our world was built on (and to question them too!). But if we advance so far to satiate our curiosity that we kill all chances of curiosity in the young, what have we achieved?
How much research needs to be done to show us the damage that our new technologies have wreaked on the mental health of our children before someone steps in and says “Enough”? Is it really inevitable that machines will do our children’s writing for them? What about their thinking? Noam Chomsky, in his article “The False Promise of Chat GPT,” has already gone so far as to imply that the dangers of AI represent dangers that have the potential to send us down a path we learned (or did we?) from a dark history, “just following orders” : intelligence devoid of morality.
When I read that Altman dropped out of Stanford to pursue more entrepreneurial ideals, I had a momentary feeling of a missed opportunity for the world. Perhaps if he had taken a few more English or history classes, he would have realized that he is better off using his gifts, which clearly are tremendous, to make the world a better place if he can and not, just for power or profit or the challenge of it, to contribute to the destruction of the little piece of Eden that is in every child, still there even as they clutch their iPhones.
In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prescient essay, “Self Reliance,” a product of the fears and anxieties that stemmed from the Industrial Revolution, Emerson forewarns us that the world “recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.” We are “gaining” at an unprecedented speed. If we do not want to lose everything we hold dear on the other side, we will need to intervene. The apple has already been eaten perhaps, pun intended, but I still have just a glimmer of hope that it is not altogether too late to save us from ourselves.