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Artificing intelligence


The initial fluttering about chatbot essays has happily subsided. The examples have been pretty primitive and detectable. This, however, is only the first cloud of the oncoming front of Artificial Intelligence. When it can replace human beings in planning, reviewing and executing complex programs, it will change social relationships and hierarchies, and raise critical questions about human values and the passing on of culture. The response of Plato and Socrates who wrestled with similarly epochal change in Athens and their influence on subsequent history may provide compass points for the task we shall face.

Socrates lived at a time when oral communication was beginning to be displaced in Athenian public life by literacy. The change was massive. The chief difference between an oral and a literate culture lies in the place of memory. In cultures that lack writing as a way of preserving words, everything needs to be held in people’s memory. For this reason speech is concrete, participatory, contains much repetition, is full of epithets to denote character and relies on proverbs, stories and rituals to preserve and share cultural wisdom. Oral cultures generally honour elderly men and women as repositories of wisdom.

In a literate culture memory does not have to be held personally. It can be held in writing, abstract thinking can be developed, accounts can be ordered in time and causally, and people with mastery of letters are honoured. Education can draw on written texts as well as on speech. The change from orality to literacy involves massive change in the way in which people see and live in the world.

The development of a literate alongside an oral culture is a long process. In Athens literacy had spread among the wealthy long before the birth of Socrates and Plato. During Socrates’ life-time in the second half of the fourth century, however, Athens experienced enormous cultural change and growth. It had survived and repelled a Persian invasion and had grown wealthy by exploiting other cities and enslaving their people. Wealth allowed Athenian citizens to take part in public affairs and in legal cases, and allowed a flowering of architecture, art, drama, poetry and oratory. In the second half of Socrates’ life and for all of Plato’s adult life Athens was soured by war against Sparta and its allies. It was also visited by a severe plague.

Societies in which complex decisions are taken after debate where people represent themselves and their proposals reward powerful speech and clear argument. The complexity of public life demanded literacy. In Athens teachers who could train people to speak persuasively were in strong demand and could command high fees. They also taught people how to think about the good life. They were called Sophists, of whom Socrates was one. In Plato’s account, however, Socrates did not demand payment for his teaching and was unlike other Sophists in deploring an understanding that saw rhetoric in instrumental terms as an ethics-free vehicle of persuasion.

Socrates was executed when the bright promise of the Athenian polity was dulled by war and demagoguery. He was the victim of people who wanted to return to the older virtues and hierarchies associated with orality. They accused him of corrupting the youth by encouraging them to question all unarticulated values in their pursuit of truth. Much of Plato’s writing represents Socrates in conversation both with Sophists and with plain blunt men who had unquestioned convictions. He rehabilitates Socrates and develops his own understanding of human values and of society. He uses the resources of literacy in order to reach beyond both the Sophists’ preoccupation with technique and the unquestioned values commended in oral culture.


'Who will champion humane values, enshrine them in the development and workings of Artificial Intelligence and commend them in culture and education? This is the question that Plato and Socrates pose to our generation.'


In one brief exchange Socrates asserts that speaking is better than writing because it demands memory whereas writing encourages forgetfulness. Writing encourages the appearance of wisdom instead of the reality.

This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.

Plato and Socrates were fighting on two fronts. In a changing culture where memory was increasingly preserved in writing and where wisdom was identified with either traditional views or with instrumental reasoning, they insisted on the importance of personal memory and of rigorous reflection on ultimate values.

In the subsequent development of culture and education, Socrates’ ethical view of humanity and society won. The literary culture included significant aspects of the oral, including the emphasis on personal memory of a tradition and on ritual that fostered silence. Even into the last century the syllabus included the study of Greek and Latin and rote learning of foundational Greek texts and English poetry. The Platonist precedence given to ultimate questions over instrumental knowledge was embodied both in Church ritual and in the hierarchy of learning in which philosophy and theology stood at the apex.

The balance between aspects of oral and literate culture was later affected by the invention of printing. This encouraged wider literacy and enabled a more effective storage and retrieval of memory. It also facilitated the development of an autonomous science with its systematically narrowed focus of enquiry on what was empirically verifiable.

In the twentieth century the balance between literacy and orality was further transformed by the focus on the image — the vocal image through radio, the visual image through television, and the personal visual and aural exchange in real time through digital media. Digitalisation has facilitated the keeping and instant recovery of memory and offered new ways of profiting from communication. It has also lessened the importance of personal memory and shaped a culture in which the only meaningful questions are those answerable by empirical evidence. At the same time, the value of ritual and of the silence that it protects is no longer recognised, and authority has passed to those at home with technology.  In such change the place of education in promoting attention to questions of ultimate value is minimised and has largely been replaced by emphasis on meeting the needs of the economy and other instrumental goals. 

This is the world into which artificial intelligence will be welcomed. Its capacity to store and draw on inherited knowledge in planning, managing and executing projects, will grow in a world in which the value of asking questions beyond those of profit and efficiency has been eroded and largely dismissed. Cultural memory is not preserved personally, and institutionally is regarded as changeable and contestable. The rituals and symbols that have protected silence and memory and fostered community have been eroded, replaced by those of instant connection between individuals.

This potted history of cultural change shows how important for our understanding of ourselves as human beings have been the changing relationships between orality and literacy and the modifications of those relationships driven by technology. The questions that Socrates and Plato asked were once the core of Western culture. They are no longer so. It would be easy to decry this change, and understandable to characterise our present culture as the globalisation of superficiality.

It would be better to ask, however, what resources we have as individuals, societies, cultures and as a world to harness artificial intelligence to an expansion of our humanity rather than to its restriction or annihilation. As artificial intelligence draws on stored human memory for planning, managing and executing the tasks formerly entrusted to human beings, we should ask what human or inhumane values will be programmed into its working. The need to program a driverless car to decide whose life should be privileged in an imminent crash is a very simple example of this task. There will certainly be those who will seek programming that enshrines their financial or political power and conceals its influence. Who will champion humane values, enshrine them in the development and workings of Artificial Intelligence and commend them in culture and education? This is the question that Plato and Socrates pose to our generation. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Statue of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates in Athens, Greece (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, AI, Socrates, Memory



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Existing comments

As an exemplar of the sort of role envisaged in this article I think of the polymath, inaugural member of the Australian Council for the Arts and Pick a Box supreme champion Barry Jones. We would need people with Jones’s qualities: an intense interest in a wide range of subjects and the ability to engage the public’s imagination. Plus he survived being a federal politician.

Pam | 09 March 2023  

Sincere thanks for such a fine erudite challenge to our generation. I hope that your question will be spread as widely as possible.

Richard Dunleavy fms | 09 March 2023  

Artificial intelligence invented by artificial relationships will make those relationships look less God-given than - in keeping with contemporary mythology - natural.

Paul Smith | 09 March 2023  

Aren’t you overrating technology, Andrew?

Your predecessor priests back the 1950’s and 60’s did a magnificent job of brainwashing without it. Their template is still on the internet on the Vatican website – Catechism of the Catholic Church. Francis hasn’t taken it down despite his media sophistry.

But, it’s good that you are now defending the human spirit. That’s what the Women’s Movement, ignored by the Church, and struggle against oppression of sexual minorities, mainly by the Church, are about.

I notice you write a lot on ethical questions facing post-Christian, humanist society. May I suggest something different? The Marist Brothers, through their lawyers, are arguing the Order cannot be sued by victims of child abuse on the basis of legal technicality. As everybody knows, for decades the Church argued it could not be sued on the legality that it didn’t exist. What about a discourse on the ethics of that?

Fosco | 10 March 2023  

I believe that there are those who consider that future world battles will be conducted by AI because it is more logical than humans, as well as being unemotional. That worries me. To think of the current War in the Ukraine being conducted by AI...This is a Frankenstein creation.

Edward Fido | 13 March 2023  

I might be trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat here, but I seem to be able to see some parallels with Ken Wilber's Integral (Meta)Theory in all of this.
After three years of wondering why so many disciplines could not 'talk' to one another, Wilber realised that human knowledge falls into at least four different groups – individual interior, individual exterior, collective/communal/cultural (referred to from now as 'collective') interior, and, collective exterior.
It seems to me that the 'oral tradition' could be aligned with the two interior groups, whilst the 'written tradition' could be aligned with the exterior groups.
And Wilber has pointed out that, from the Western Enlightenment to the present day, the interior groups, wherein lie all the immeasurable intangibles, have been marginalised and now essentially forgotten. Whilst the exterior groups, with all the measurable tangibles, have been asserted as the only 'real' groups.
However, according to Wilber, when something new comes into being it 'tetra arises', that is, it arises in all four quadrants simultaneously, and thus we ignore the two interior groups at our peril. So, as mentioned in the article, AI must include humanity's interior as much as its exterior.

Richard | 19 March 2023  

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