AI and Intellectual Property

The world may already have ended: I just noticed that Noam Chomsky of all people has publicly stated something aligned with what I myself was thinking during my morning walk today. Specifically, he commented about a year ago that AI systems such as ChatGPT are “basically high-tech plagiarism. It’s a system that…accesses an astronomical amount of data and finds regularities and strings them together — looks more or less like what somebody could have written on this topic. Basically plagiarism, but it just happens to be high-tech.” In a New York Times article around the same time, Chomsky and collaborators expanded on this criticism of AI in a broader way, explaining the difference between AI’s unintelligent collation of infinite (stolen) input and a living human mind’s ability to entertain and develop a theoretically infinite range of possibilities from a finite amount of input.

That’s quite true — not the sort of response I expect to hear myself making after any statement by Noam Chomsky. As is typical with public intellectuals, even the most objectionable among them will tend to sound much more rational when speaking within the range of their true specializations — the nexus of thought and language in Chomsky’s case — as opposed to when they involve themselves in the arena of tribal politics as phony experts without portfolio, where they almost invariably make fools of themselves. That aside, I will now elaborate on Chomsky’s excellent point about AI, lest my own morning rumination go to waste.

We have been on a trajectory for some time towards the realization of the progressive dream of collective thought, which is to say thinking on a civilizational level that is effectively limited to a self-enclosed circle of social self-projection, permitting absolutely no new influence, no alternative approaches, no fundamental challenges to the never-ending variations on a few pre-determined premises and temperaments. This is the dream that John Dewey, one of its most effective advocates, identified in the most direct way as “the social mind.” (You may read my full assessment of this aspect of Dewey’s philosophy here and here.) At the heart of Dewey’s notion, which is implicit throughout twentieth century progressive moral, epistemological, and educational theory, is the rejection, on ethical and political grounds, of individual thought, which is to say of the “selfishness” of private learning, private knowledge, private artistry, private self-development. One practical obstacle to the outright obliteration of the private (i.e., individual), however, was the West’s longstanding tradition of protecting private property, and most significantly intellectual property. The West, increasingly reduced to various “social democracies,” which is to say democratically elected tyrannies, has been drifting toward the silent annihilation of intellectual property and its philosophic foundation, the individual mind, for generations. Artificial intelligence appears to be the ultimate step in this quiet revolution against the mind, or rather this murder by suffocation of private thought, by means of the essential obviation, by the corporate-government guardians of the internet, of the very concept of intellectual property.

To engage in public discourse today, one must make one’s ideas available on the internet. To allow one’s ideas to appear on the internet is to subject them to automatic absorption and use by AI systems, which catalogue everything for the express purpose of exploiting it as input for its algorithms, which will in turn churn it back out in whatever form is required or requested by anyone, anywhere, for any purpose. This digitized ingestion-regurgitation process, by virtue of its very comprehensiveness and universality, makes proper attribution or citation all but impossible in practice, in addition to being an irreducible nuisance (to the internet gods) in theory. That is to say, if AI systems were actually subject to the rules of attribution, citation, fair use, mutual respect, and property theft that civilization has applied to human beings, in one form or another, for thousands of years, then these systems would simply be unable to do anything they now do, or will ever “learn” to do in the future. They would be useless, for all intents and purposes, since their utility and development depend entirely on the ability of their proprietors to circumvent all intellectual property rights and thus all acknowledgement of, let alone deference to, the notion of individual minds belonging to individual human beings.

AI technology thus promises to be the proper fulfillment of Dewey’s dream of a social mind, achieved exactly as Dewey, more than a century ago, argued that it would have to be achieved, namely by obliterating the individual. This social mind, which I have called a self-enclosed circle of collective thought, or a social self-projection, is not self-generated in the strict sense, which is to say it is not quite as “democratic” as its proponents, past and present, would like us to believe. The social mind has owners of course, who are in principle outside of the circle, at least in the sense of being the orchestrators and exploiters of this kaleidoscopically enticing act of raping and pillaging on a global scale. This too fits perfectly within the implications of Dewey’s view, akin to all progressive theory, which is at base paternalistic and authoritarian in character, though always behind a pretty veil of self-government.

“But,” say the apologists for progressive totalitarianism’s fun version, “it’s up to those who provide content for AI — in other words, everyone — to read their user agreements, which clearly state that everything they do via this or that platform, program, or search engine automatically becomes accessible for use by AI programs.” True, and so we return to my earlier point: “To engage in public discourse today, one must make one’s ideas available on the internet.” So the defenders are implicitly saying nothing less than this: “If you want to engage in public discourse, write for public dissemination, or in any way share your thoughts with a world beyond the range of your personal acquaintance or your natural voice, then you must leave your intellectual property rights at the door and submit to full ownership, use, and reclassification as needed, of your intellect and its products — that is, your soul and your essential existence — by the social mind, i.e., by the human proprietors and directors of the social mind.”

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