• Cultural Viewpoints

AI: a Powerful New Addition to Humanity’s Tool Kit

Just a couple of weeks ago, I had an opportunity to speak at a conference on educational technology about the new AI-literacy training curriculum I started implementing in my courses. Amidst a younger, more digitally inclined audience, many with substantial backgrounds in computer science and information technology, I offered a unique perspective as an anthropologist and a non-digital native. I highlighted a crucial shift in our societal landscape as artificial intelligence, or AI, is quickly integrated into the fabric of everyday life. Of immediate importance to the younger members of the audience was the fact that, according to the 2023 “Future of Jobs Report” from the World Economic Forum, the great majority of employers plan to integrate this newly ubiquitous technology into their workplaces, underscoring the necessity for anyone who wishes to be successful to be at least familiar with how to use AI productively and ethically to do some basic tasks.

With the increasing accessibility of generative AI that communicates in natural language, we have seen the rapid transition from AI as a specialized tool to a universal facilitator in diverse domains. We may not be conscious of it, but AI is already in our homes, in the form of interactive chatbots like Siri (Apple) or Alexa (Amazon). AI is being integrated into more and more ordinary appliances and is increasingly accessible through our Internet browsers and cell phones. By now, we’d be hard-pressed to find a person whose life has not been touched by AI in one form or another.

The accessibility of AI offers opportunities to expand our creativity and imagination in ways that are unprecedented in human history. My own experience of delving into the world of AI with little prior knowledge began with DALL-E, an AI text-to-image generator (which I wrote about earlier). Lacking a background in computer science, programming, or art, I ventured into this domain with curiosity. Two months later, my artwork was featured in the DALL-E newsletter, a testament to AI’s user-friendly nature and its potential to democratize creativity by providing an avenue for one’s creativity and imagination to take shape without a natural gift of dexterity or highly specialized training.

My experience with generative AI is but a small anecdote in the long and complex relationship between humans and their tools. Historically, Homo sapiens’ uniqueness has been partly defined by toolmaking. In fact, the notion of Homo faber, or “Man the Maker,” who controls their own fate with the use of tools, originally appeared in the Roman Republic era, and was revived during the Renaissance, as the most salient characteristic of our species. A glance at the “Neolithic Revolution” (named by Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe in 1935) provides a telling example of how toolmaking and usage transformed our species. Around 12000 years ago, our ancestors started to use a sophisticated array of stone tools, and domesticating plants and animals, incorporating them into their “toolkit” to procure life’s necessities like food and shelter. The introduction of these tools, in turn, marked a fundamental shift from a more nomadic hunting-gathering lifestyle to a sedentary, agricultural one.

Fast-forwarding to 2023, we stand at a similar juncture with AI, poised to integrate this formidable tool into our species’ arsenal. Just as the domestication of plants and animals revolutionized human societies, AI stands to radically alter our way of life, from labor and leisure to learning and creativity. The way we adapt to and integrate AI will parallel historical shifts in human tool usage, potentially reshaping our civilization in profound and long-lasting ways. Embracing AI as a tool and partner promises to augment human capabilities in unprecedented ways. The evolving relationship between humans and AI is not merely a technological advancement — it is a continuation of our species’ long history of toolmaking and adaptation. The way we navigate this new technological journey will, then, shape the future of humanity and our interaction with the world.

AI seems different from any other tools human beings have made and used in the history of our species — it can “think” and do it faster than any human being possibly can. For a species whose evolutionary advantage came primarily from its ability to think and reason, this has been a cause for concern and anxiety. In the conference lecture I mentioned earlier, I referred to the bleak picture of humanity depicted in the dystopian sci-fi movie “The Matrix.” In this classic hero’s journey, the protagonist Neo struggles to comprehend the true nature of human existence in the AI-dominated world. As a way of demonstration, his mentor holds up an AA battery in front of his face. Humans are cultivated in farms and turned into biological batteries, all the while “living” in the make-belief virtual world created by AI to keep their minds occupied.

It is important to remind ourselves that the Neolithic Revolution was not all roses, either. For example, many deadly infectious diseases, like smallpox, were introduced because of the close and constant proximity to domesticated animals, while accumulated wealth in the forms of stored grain and livestock became the basis for social hierarchy and inequality. AI has very quickly become integrated into our lives, and its development continues to advance at a neck-breaking speed, making it impossible to throw it out of our toolkit. So, there’s no time like the present for humans to start taking control of their destiny by learning how to live productively and creatively with AI.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.