Emerson Society

Enlightened Machines?

Author: Jim Rittenhouse

Alan Turing was an English mathematician. In 1950 he published a paper entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” in which he described the “imitation game.” Over the years this game has been played thousands of times and is better known as the Turing Test. It was designed to answer the question of whether a machine, a computer, can duplicate human thought. Deep Blue is said to have passed the test when it outplayed Chess Champion, Gary Kasporov, in 1997, but computers have failed most of the time—until recently (Yao).

In early 2023, Generative, or enhanced, AI produced some astounding results. AI that is “enhanced” is able to take its algorithmic instruction and generate new instruction for itself; it can think outside of its box to come up with demonstrations of creativity. This was evidenced when “GPT-4, matched the top 1% of human thinkers on a standard creativity test” (“AI Outperforms Humans”). While the outcome represents a small sample size, the results are part of a growing body of data that support the possibility that machines will surpass humans in intelligence and possibly in creativity and originality. Skeptics will counter that there are still clear differences between human and machine intelligence. However, the progress that has been made over the last several months indicates that, in time, the differences between human and machine abilities including intelligence, creativity, and consciousness will be blurred.

When this time arrives, will humanity undergo a new Enlightenment? Will machines consider transcendental questions? Computers using large language models (LLM) are capable of generating creative work that can appear to be human-made. They can crunch millions of bits of information. They are capable of immense understanding. Understanding was a term of significance for the Transcendentalists, and it was juxtaposed with the term “reason.” In Emerson’s words, “The Understanding toils all the time, compares, contrives, adds, argues, near sighted but strong sighted, dwelling in the present the expedient, the customary.” Thus he describes mechanistic “understanding,” a talent possessed by us humans and also by machines.  But he also mentions reason: “Reason is the highest faculty of the soul—what we mean often by the soul itself; …never proves, it simply perceives; it is vision” (Goodwin 121).

In his essay “The Transcendentalist,” Emerson goes further. He draws on Enlightenment thinkers John Locke and Immanuel Kant to formulate and describe two types of thinkers: “materialists” and “idealists.” Materialists base their idea of reality on experience and the “data of the senses,” on “facts, on history, on the forces of circumstances and the animal wants of man” which is the way Locke describes empiricism. Empiricists are materialists, they are guided by “the understanding.” Upon reading Locke’s essays, Emerson rejected empiricism for idealism. Idealists “perceive that senses are not final … the senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot say.”This idea is also found in Plato, whom Emerson read. And it is echoed in the ideas of Kant that Emerson became familiar with, causing him to write, “Kant has made the best catalogue of human faculties and the best analysis of the mind.” Idealists are guided by “reason” (Emerson 81–95).

Emerson wrote further regarding humanity’s idealism in his essay “The Over-Soul”: “His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts … as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself.” Emerson is referring to that part of one’s self that is also part of the “unity” he associates with the “Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other.” He continues: “Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence … I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine” (Emerson 236–51). For AI, is the “higher origin” the original program that initiated the machine’s ability to enhance itself? Is the “higher origin” the human who wrote the initial program? Will the machine recognize humanity as the source of its ability, as the Over-Soul? Will the machine recognize humanity as the source of its ability? Will its ability cause it to consider a more fundamental original source?

Enhanced AI corresponds to Empiricism as it was understood by the Transcendentalists.  Enlightenment thinker John Locke is known as the “father of empiricism.” Well known to the Transcendentalists, Locke’s philosophy explained that all human knowledge is based on interpretations of human sensations, on the cumulative conclusions drawn from inputs into the neural network. This sounds similar to the description of generative AI provided in a recent article in Forbes magazine. Generative AI analyzes data, makes predictions, and “creates new data similar to its training data” (Marr). But there is no inclusion of any inputs coming from outside of the artificially intelligent machine itself. There is no “Over-Soul” influencing the machine, unless indirectly through the human who writes the algorithm. The time will come when machines achieve intelligence, creativity, and consciousness to match human capacity. At that point, will the machine cease being a “materialist” and become an “idealist.” An “idealist” that is intuitively aware of that same Over-Soul that Emerson described? Or would the machine confuse the human who crafted the original algorithm with the Over-Soul?

Works Cited

“AI Outperforms Humans in Creativity Test,” Neuroscience News, 6 July 2023. https://neurosciencenews.com/ai-creativity-23585/.

Biever, Celest. “The Easy Intelligence Tests that AI Chatbots Fail,” Nature, no. 619, 2023.

De Cremer, David, Nicola Morini Bianzino, and Ben Falk. “How Generative AI Could Disrupt Creative Work,” Harvard Business Review, 13 April 2023. https://hbr.org/2023/04/how-generative-ai-could-disrupt-creative-work.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Modern Library, 1992.

Goodwin, Joan W. The Remarkable Mrs. Ripley: The Life of Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley. Northeastern University Press, 1998.

Huckins, Grace. “Minds of Machines: The Great AI Consciousness Conundrum,” MIT Technology Review, 16 October 2023. https://www.technologyreview.com/2023/10/16/1081149/ai-consciousness-conundrum/.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Anchor, 1974.

Marr, Bernard. “The Difference Between Generative AI and Traditional AI: An Easy Explanation for Anyone,” Forbes Magazine, 24 July 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2023/07/24/the-difference-between-generative-ai-and-traditional-ai-an-easy-explanation-for-anyone/?sh=2b516834508a.

Miller, Perry. The Transcendentalists: An Anthology. Harvard University Press, 1950.

Richardson, Robert. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. University of California Press, 1995.

Turing, A. M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind, vol. 59, no. 236, 1950, pp. 433–60. Yao, Deborah. “25 Years Ago Today: How Deep Blue vs. Kasparov Changed AI Forever,” AI Business, 11 May 2022. https://aibusiness.com/ml/25-years-ago-today-how-deep-blue-vs-kasparov-changed-ai-forever.