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The creator of new technologies does not always understand their uses and consequences

When Philo Farnsworth invented television at the turn of the last century, he did so with the goal of educating those who couldn't attend classes in person, not broadcasting soap operas. And when Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, his purpose was to share stories and photos with family and friends, not to send hints to your ex or copy memes.

There are other similar examples (the Internet was created as a communications system in the event of a nuclear attack), but the big ones are needed to come to this conclusion (which is not mine, as a few paragraphs will make clear): the inventor of a technology is not always the best judge of the usefulness or uselessness of that technology.

That debate reached a new level of urgency because of a recent report released by four universities (Tennessee, Colorado, Michigan, and Florida International) on how the emergence of new technologies, from steam engines to artificial intelligence, has an unanticipated impact on people's lives and jobs.

More specifically, artificial intelligence systems such as ChatGPT (which can create entire essays in a matter of seconds from a question) or DALL-E (which generates images from a short description) appear to have a negative impact on human creativity and on the way we communicate.

“These new AI tools also have downsides. First, they could accelerate the loss of important human skills that will remain important in the coming years, especially writing skills,” said study co-author Dr. Lynne Parker of the University of Tennessee.

Parker's mention of the possible loss in the next few years of the ability to write immediately made me think of a similar debate, although focused on the negative aspects of writing, that Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates at the end of his dialogue Phaedrus (274d-275b).

For our purposes in this column, it suffices to say that Socrates narrates an Egyptian myth in which Theuth (the Egyptian god of the underworld) offers King Thamus one of his inventions, writing, which he describes as a kind of “ drug” that makes human beings wiser and wiser.

But Thamus rejects that offer, stating that writing is a "drug" will lead people to "neglect memory" and believe that, because they have read things without learning them, they became "omniscient", when in fact "they are totally ignorant" and “only appear to be wise”.

In fact, Thamus reproaches Theuth for having decided by himself (regardless of Theuth being a god) the benefits of his creation, because "the inventor of a technology (technique, art) is not always the best judge of the usefulness (benefit) or uselessness (harm) of that technology.”

Two and a half millennia after that myth and that debate, we clearly have not advanced an inch from the truth expressed by Plato, because now, perhaps more than ever, arrogant ignorance and apparent wisdom predominate. Did I mention that the “most important goal for artificial intelligence is understanding what it means to have a mind”? (Article by neuroscientist Michael S.A. Graziano in the WSJ).

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