A few weeks ago, Daniel Dennett published an alarmist essay (“Creating counterfeit digital people risks destroying our civilization”) in The Atlantic that amplified concerns Yuval Noah Harari expressed in the Economist.+ (If you are in a rush, feel free to skip to the next paragraph because what follows are three quasi-sociological remarks.) First, Dennett’s piece is (sociologically) notable because in it he is scathing of the “AI community” (many of whom are his fanbase) and its leading corporations (“Google, OpenAI, and others”). Dennett’s philosophy has not been known for leading one to a left-critical political economy, and neither has Harari’s. In addition, Dennett’s piece is psychologically notable because it goes against his rather sunny disposition — he is a former teacher and sufficiently regular acquaintance — and the rather optimistic persona he has sketched of himself in his writings (recall this recent post); alarmism just isn’t Dennett’s shtick. Third, despite their prominence neither Harari nor Dennett’s pieces really reshaped the public discussion (in so far as there (still) is a public). And that’s because it competes with the ‘AGI induced extinction’ meme, which, despite being a lot more far-fetched, is scarier (human extinction > fall of our civilization) and is much better funded and supported by powerful (rent-seeking) interests.

Here’s Dennett’s core claim(s):

Money has existed for several thousand years, and from the outset counterfeiting was recognized to be a very serious crime, one that in many cases calls for capital punishment because it undermines the trust on which society depends. Today, for the first time in history, thanks to artificial intelligence, it is possible for anybody to make counterfeit people who can pass for real in many of the new digital environments we have created… 

Another pandemic is coming, this time attacking the fragile control systems in our brains—namely, our capacity to reason with one another—that we have used so effectively to keep ourselves relatively safe in recent centuries.

You may ask, ‘What does this have to do with the intentional stance?’ For Dennett goes on to write, “Our natural inclination to treat anything that seems to talk sensibly with us as a person—adopting what I have called the “intentional stance”—turns out to be easy to invoke and almost impossible to resist, even for experts. We’re all going to be sitting ducks in the immediate future.” This is a kind of (or at least partial) road to serfdom thesis produced by our disposition to take up the intentional stance. In what follows I show how these concepts come together by the threat posed by AIs designed to fake personhood.

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