Kitsch is a German word that, while it usually refers today to cheesy or tacky artwork and decor, originally meant exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama in any realm. The intelligence errors at the heart of the AI worldview—the beliefs, that is, not the science—have given rise to a modern and particularly pernicious form of kitsch. Dreams of superintelligent computers are not Soviet propaganda, and no one is coercing us to believe in the rise of the machines. But they share the basic idea of replacing complex and difficult discussions about individuals and societies with technological stories that, like Soviet culture, rewrite older ideas with dangerously one-dimensional abstractions.
Kitsch is a word whose meaning and use have changed over time. The original German definition in some ways differs from the meaning I intend to explore here, but two essential ingredients of the original meaning should make my claim clear enough. First, kitsch involves a simplification of complicated ideas. There must be a simple story to tell. Second, it offers easy solutions that sweep away, with emotion, the questions and confusions people have about the problems of life rather than addressing those questions with serious, probing discussion.
Thus, a perfect example of kitsch is the dreamy idea that one day an awe-inspiring android with superintelligence will remake human society and its older traditions and ideas, and we’ll enter a new era, thankfully free of old arguments about God, mind, freedom, the good life, and the like. Beautiful machines (or machines with beautiful intelligence) such as Ava in the 2015 sci-fi film Ex Machina, portrayed by Alicia Vikander, will remove the hard facts of human existence. This is kitsch, technological-style. Like Soviet propaganda, it might horrify or mollify, but it gives us a new story that writes over and makes unnecessary what was true before, and the old reality disappears.
Alan Turing, for all his contributions to science and engineering, made possible the genesis and viral growth of technological kitsch by first equating intelligence with problem-solving. Jack Good later compounded Turing’s intelligence error with his much-discussed notion of ultraintelligence, proposing that the arrival of intelligent machines necessarily implied the arrival of superintelligent machines. Once the popular imagination accepted the idea of superintelligent machines, the rewriting of human purpose, meaning, and history could be told within the parameters of computation and technology.
But ultraintelligent machines are fanciful, and pretending otherwise encourages the unwanted creep of technological kitsch, usually in one of two ways that are equally superficial. At one extreme we hear a tale of apocalyptic or fearsome AI, a sort of campfire horror story. At the other extreme, we encounter utopian or dreamy AI, which is equally superficial and unmerited. If we take either form of AI’s kitsch seriously, we end up in a world defined only by technology.
This exposes the core problem with futuristic AI. As Nathan, the genius computer scientist in Ex Machina, puts it, “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” In truth, it’s unclear that any computer will ever look back at all. The popular sentiment requires a deep dive into the meaning of existence, life, consciousness, and intelligence, and the differences between ourselves and computation and its many technologies. Kitsch prevents us from grappling with human nature and other serious philosophical endeavors. This simply shouldn’t be the case.
This essay has been excerpted from The Myth of Artificial Intelligence: Why Computers Can’t Think the Way We Do by Erik J. Larson, published by Harvard University Press.
Erik J. Larson is a computer scientist and tech entrepreneur. The founder of two DARPA-funded AI startups, he is currently working on core issues in natural language processing and machine learning.