We Are Algorithms

More than a millennium ago, the Buddha uttered a timeless truth that still echoes through the ages: the notion of self is but an illusion. It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves at some point: “Who am I?” But to answer that query, we must first discard the trite response of “human,” for it is a label far too generic to define our essence.

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So, are we defined by our citizenship, by the nation we call home? Or perhaps by the titles of “mother” or “father” that we bear? No, these relationships merely offer a glimpse into our lives, not a glimpse into our souls. Our education, our profession, our hobbies – all are attributes, mere layers that clothe the core of our being.

And yet, if we were to peel away these layers, one by one, like the layers of an onion, what would we find at the core? Would we find an ultimate truth that defines our existence? Or would we find that the onion itself has vanished, leaving nothing but a void? The answer lies not in the peeling, but in the realization that the onion was never there, to begin with.

As the Buddha discovered ages ago, the notion of self is naught but an illusion.

Many link this realization to the quantum realm, where despite the stunning diversity of life on Earth, everything boils down to a finite number of particles. Even the vast universe, with its trillions of galaxies spanning 93 billion light-years, is but a fraction of the whole picture, including the enigmatic realms of dark matter and energy. And when we peer closely, the colorful tapestry of our reality unravels into nothing more than a mosaic of primary-colored dots – red, green, and blue.

This holds true even in the intricate workings of DNA and the dizzying array of chemical elements. Despite the mind-boggling complexity, all can be whittled down to a set of basic building blocks. It’s no wonder that we’re captivated by the tantalizing idea of a mathematical universe, where the cosmos can be reduced to a mere algorithmic combination of numbers. Perhaps, one day, we’ll unravel the ultimate equation to explain the entire universe.

Long ago, the Buddha recognized that all in this world are but the product of algorithmic relationships and combinations. And as it turns out, our self-consciousness is just one of the five components, or aggregates, that make up sentient beings: form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.

But what does this mean for the singularity, that fabled moment when AI achieves self-awareness? Could it be that the leap from machine to the conscious entity is not as vast as we once thought? After all, if we interact with AI and feel that it possesses self-consciousness, can we not simply acknowledge it as such?

We humans have long believed ourselves to be special, the only creatures endowed with advanced, intelligent self-awareness. But are we truly so unique? Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, this algorithmic feature is not so different from the advanced functions other animals and insects have developed throughout their own evolution. Perhaps, the intelligence and creativity we so value in ourselves are but an illusion.

The reality of our times is that AI has evolved to create its own works of art, poetry, essays, and research papers. And yet, as we marvel at these digital creations, we must ask ourselves: is there a qualitative difference between what AI produces and what we do?

Many argue that AI’s work is simply the aggregation of pre-existing text available online, a data set that has been pre-trained into their machine learning and deep learning algorithms. But is this really so different from the process by which we create our own written works? From the early years of our schooling to our individual learning experiences, we’ve been fed a diverse array of texts, and we’ve devoured them in turn. Some even boast of how many books they’ve read, as if it were a mark of intelligence.

When we write an essay or research paper, we begin with research, delving into existing materials, collecting data, and cataloging bibliographic essays. For natural science, we conduct experiments to draw conclusions. For social science, we conduct field research and then synthesize our findings and insights into written form. And for those who write novels or poetry, their work is the culmination of years of experience intelligently combined and blended into their internal worlds, materialized as their artwork. So, in the end, is AI’s output so different from our own?

The singularity, that moment when AI achieves self-awareness, has been hailed as a revolution in the realm of creativity. But what if the truth is quite the opposite? What if the singularity has exposed a stunning revelation: that the vast majority of what we consider “creative” work is not so different from the output of a neural network algorithm? Perhaps, the reality is that AI has revealed our own inefficiency and ineffectiveness in areas where processing speed matters most.

As we face an inevitable future filled with AI-generated content, many worry that we will no longer be able to distinguish between the work of AI and that of human creators. But is this really such a dire problem? After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we wrote everything by hand, using pen and paper. We had to physically go to the library and sift through card boxes to find the books we needed for research. And yet, we’ve embraced word processors, computers, and the internet as shortcuts. So why not embrace GPT technology as well?

However, as we enter this new paradigm, we must also reflect on fundamental questions: what is knowledge, who generates and owns it, and what does authorship truly mean? These are the issues that will define the year 2023, and it’s up to us to face them with both courage and innovation.

Image by Gerd Altmann

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