In this series, I imagine, speculate and sometimes ask what others would say about Artificial Intelligence. I do it mostly to develop a better and more comprehensive understanding of AI, but also to introduce new perspectives to the discussion.
Think new sci-fi movie character with philosophy as his superpower
Thales of Miletus, often considered one of the forefathers of philosophy, grew to be a real legend. Apparently, he once fell into a well because he was too fixated on looking at the stars. Laughed at for being poor, he took matters un his own hands, analysed weather data to predict the next best olive season and made a fortune renting out olive presses – only to come to the conclusion that “philosophers can easily be wealthy if they wish, but that’s not what they’re interested in”.
So what was Thales interested in? He wanted to discover the basic material of the cosmos: the thing that the cosmos consists of and from which it comes into existence, “that of which all existing things are composed and that from which they originally come to be and that into which they finally perish.” Thales was looking then for a material from which everything can be formed, something essential to life, and capable of change and motion. For him, it was water. It wasn’t so much what he thought this material was, though, but what mattered more were the philosophical superpowers of reasoning, questioning and observation that he gained along the way.
Why would he be interested in AI?
Imagine Thales is a sci-fi movie character and teleports himself from 585 BCE to right now. There’s so much light pollution around that he has to give up stargazing. He had lost his interest in the olive business and, in any case, they tell him something else is the new oil. He also realises that water wasn’t the answer, but it looks like we found that one basic material that everything is made of, and then some. Thales needs a new object of interest, a new subject to apply his monistic lens to. He strokes his beard intrigued when he discovers humanity somehow evolved this intangible, invisible, yet acutely real digital cosmos, and yet it isn’t really concerned with understanding its fundamentals.
The one thing that AI is made of
Let us entertain this thought. Thales was looking for the arche, the principle material. In the world of digital and artificial intelligence, what is this principle material? What is that substance from which everything digital can be formed? Something basic and essential, yet capable of generativity and achieving stupendous levels of complexity, and at the same time moving and changing.
Perhaps instead of falling into wells when trying to understand the stars, Thales would fall into the abyss of cat videos on YouTube while attempting to discover that one thing that makes possible both the biggest free collection of knowledge available on the internet and conspiracy Keanu memes. Maybe, to prove his critics wrong, he’d create a startup that uses outsourced employees to fake the AI he never develops and still gets millions and millions in funding.
One thing is sure. Thales being Thales, he’d definitely reject all these legends, myths, fashions and hype around AI, as he didn’t agree with mysticism in his own era. He’d use his superpowers of reason and observation, and perhaps arrive at the conclusion that this one thing that AI is made of isn’t some sort of heavens-sent magic, but a material so ubiquitous, so present, so engulfing: data. And if you think about all of these streams, lakes, pools and flows, data suddenly doesn’t look as different from water as you may initially think.
Why does it matter?
As in the 6th century BCE, it’s not that much about whether it’s really water or not, but that we seek to find that basic building block of AI with a reason-based approach. Otherwise, we may be trying to understanding AI, but leaving out the intelligence. Or, in other words, managers chasing AI and forgetting about data may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
And what would you say about (what Thales of Miletus would say about) AI? Leave a comment below!