/ 15 March 2023

Will artificial intelligence change what it means to be human?

We have only just begun to see how artificial intelligence will influence interactions between people and technology.
(John McCan/M&G)

Francis Fukuyama famously said in his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, that history had come to an end circa 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It announced the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Soviet Russia and, generally, of communism as an economic system, and, correlatively, the unopposed global spread of liberal democracy. 

One hundred and eighty years before Fukuyama, Hegel had said something similar when he saw Napoleon on horseback riding into the town of Jena in 1806. Napoleon was, for many in those early days, the symbol of the spread of freedom through Europe and against the tyranny of monarchy. 

There is today the suspicion coming from both Marxists and conservatives alike that the imminent transformation of the labour process, its complete automation through robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), will bring about the end of history. 

What will there be left to do in the ideal situation where humanity will have emancipated itself from labour? Isn’t the march of history a progress that tends toward the abolition of work and the effort and pain it costs? 

Such narratives usually secretly rely on the Christian story of the Fall. In paradise, humankind was unemployed and immortal. Because of the Fall, it became mortal and had to work to survive. The end of history would be a return to the paradisal state. 

Such narratives exhibit a poor understanding of work and of the human condition. What will there be left to do when the productive process is entirely automated? The answer, obviously, is consumption. It won’t be necessary to work, but it will still be necessary to eat, shit, dress, wash and do whatever is necessary to stay healthy and alive. We work to stay alive and by emancipating ourselves from work, the wish cannot be to emancipate ourselves from life. Certain forms of productive consumption, and the pain and effort that go with them, cannot be abolished without putting an end to life. 

The idea that the complete automation of the productive process coincides with the end of pain and work is ideological and a falsification of human life.  

From a Marxist perspective, universal unemployment through the automation of the productive process coincides with the end of capitalism. In what sense? Capitalism is premised upon the extraction of surplus value from human labour. Machines do not produce surplus value. Without surplus value, there is no capitalism. 

What is surplus value? It is the profit made by the capitalist. What is the source of his profit? It is usually said to be the difference between the cost of production and the value of the commodity on the market. The capitalist makes a profit by reducing the cost of production, in particular, by stealing a few hours of labour from his employee: he pays him less than his due, and he collects the difference as his profit. But this is erroneous. 

We have to assume that the capitalist pays the worker justly. The worker gets the equivalent, in the form of wages, for his labour time. The surplus is the commodity that results from his labour. That is the thing not factored into the wages and it is the capitalist’s source of profit. 

What is unique about human labour is that it produces more than it is worth on the labour market. Automated labour does not create surplus value. It cannot therefore be a source of profit, wealth or capital. A society whose goods are produced by automation is therefore no longer capitalist, and what circulates in the market are no longer commodities. It is not clear that such a society can be made sense of from a contemporary point of view. 

The “end of history” can be taken in another sense, not simply as the liberation from human labour but as the fullness of human desire or, what amounts to the same thing, as leisure, idleness or the enjoyment of unproductive consumption. 

Let us suppose the adult human aims at fulfilment, it wants to be whole and itself, and that it starts out as a lacking subject. What does it aim at through work? Does it aim at rest? No, because rest is not fulfilling. The subject rests to recover its strength and to continue working. It works to secure the necessities of life and the good things of life, to live and live well. But to live well, in other words, the good life in the eminent sense of the word, is the life of idleness, freedom or leisure. Work aims at leisure just as war aims at peace.

What is leisure? Whatever it is, it is antithetical to work in its structure or meaning, for work is a means whereas leisure is an end in itself. It is, for instance, the brilliance of the sun on a spring morning, it is the taste of the wine, it is the touch of one’s lover’s skin, it is the spectacular and sumptuous destruction of wealth. We enjoy these things for themselves or in their own right. They are pleasures without utility. Kant speaks of them as the agreeable in sensation in the third Critique. Isn’t that the goal of history, the enjoyment of useless pleasures? 

Perhaps. At any rate, the “goal of history” makes sense as a notion if it coincides with the goal pursued by the human subject, whether consciously or unconsciously, in and through history. And we can say that history comes to an end when the subject is in possession of the ultimate object of its desire, of that thing — whatever it may be, freedom, love, justice, useless pleasures — that makes it whole and complete, identical to itself, autarchic and independent. 

But a moment’s reflection shows that even in this instance, the notion of “the end of history” borders on nonsense and paradox. 

Let us say humanity is in possession of the ultimate object of its desire. The simple question is whether we are still dealing with humanity. Doesn’t it abolish the human condition? 

The human condition is defined by, among other things, lack, work, renunciation and all the ordinary sorrows that attend it. From this angle, it is clear what would happen to the identity of the human subject were that lack to be suddenly quelled. My point is that if fullness is the goal of history and of the human subject, then attaining it would put an end to them both. It would be tantamount to their destruction. Isn’t that why the enjoyment that promises fullness repulses us as much as it attracts us? 

I cannot think of a better example that represents this impossible fullness than the consummate libertine that appears at the very end of the narrative of the 600 passions in the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom. This libertine is referred to as “a man” by the woman who recounts the kind of passion he is after. Her description of him suggests that he is neither human nor animal but, rather, something inhuman and monstrous. He is an image of the indestructible id or insatiable libido prior to the formation of the ego. “He is a man of some forty years, enormous in stature and furnished with the member of a stallion: his prick is very near to nine inches in circumference and a foot in overall length; he is exceedingly wealthy, a very powerful lord, very harsh, very cruel, his heart is of stone.” 

I will spare you the details of the way he satisfies his passion with his victims. The narrator calls it the “hell passion” and his victims are 15 girls aged 15 to 17. Suffice it to say that his intent is to debase what is pure and innocent and to destroy what claims to have an authoritative status. 

What am I trying to say? Very simply, the attainment of fullness is like the abolition of work: the human ego would cease to exist because it would cease to desire. And what would remain? The unhampered satisfaction of the id. In short, unproductive (or useless) consumption, the kind anticipated at the end of history or capitalism, would swallow the world in one fell swoop.

Rafael Winkler is an associate professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg and is currently a research fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.