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AI: Artificial or Alchemical Intelligence?

The quest for the panacea even spawned a “science,” alchemy, composed of equal parts earnestness and fraudulence.

Panacea, daughter of Aesculapius, god of medicine and healing

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By David Benjamin

“Reynard affirmed that he had sent her majesty the queen a comb made of panthera bone ‘more lustrous than the rainbow, more odiferous than any perfume, a charm against every ill, a universal panacea.”

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, in reference to Hinreck van Alckmer, Reynard the Fox (1498)

According to Greek legend, Panacea, daughter of Aesculapius, god of medicine and healing, had powers to bestow on humanity the cure for everything that ails us. In English, a “panacea” solves everything.

Of course, the Greek version of this myth was hardly an innovation. There have been magic potions, secret formulae, swords, talismans, angels and other creatures that make everything all better, right away, forever.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, my favorite source of juicy esoterica, lists panaceas from all eras of human history, including the bone of a non-existent beast called a panthera. The Orkney folks of bygone Scotland had a well in Kildinguie where grew a seaweed, the dulse of Guiodin, that supposedly cured every disease except the Black Death. Followers of the “mystic physician” Paracelsus (1493-1541) touted his tonic, called Azoth, as “the tincture of life.”

Also credited with blessing the fragile human form with invulnerability were the unguent of Prometheus (remember?), Prince Ahmed’s apple, Aladdin’s ring and in Thomas Malory’s History of King Arthur, the sword of Sir Gilbert: “Sir Lancelot touched the wounds of Sir Meliot with Sir Gilbert’s sword, and wiped them with the cerecloth and anon a wholler man was he never in all his life.”

My favorite among the heroes of magical healing is Fierabras of Alexandria, “the greatest giant that ever walked the earth.” He got hold of his panacea by carrying away from the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem the crown of thorns from the head of Jesus, as well as “the balsam which embalmed the body of Our Lord, one drop of which cure any sickness, or heal any wound in a moment.” (Brewer)

The quest for the panacea even spawned a “science,” alchemy, composed of equal parts earnestness and fraudulence. The legend of the “philosopher’s stone,” a substance that could convert all baser metals into gold — thus somehow solving most of humanity’s problems — dates back to Biblical tales about Noah.

For centuries, alchemists, both serious scientists and con artists, perpetuated the cruel chimera of the philosopher’s stone.

The quest for that magical all-healing potion continues. During our latest plague, thousands of people went willingly to the grave, consuming false cures rather than following the counsel of real doctors and medical science. One of the most preposterous of those impotent panaceas, ivermectin — a remedy for intestinal worms in horses — had a latter-day Fierabras as its spokesgiant, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who eventually got sick, anyhow).

I cite all this colorful background because of a TV ad I’ve seen for AWS, Amazon Web Services, which utters the alchemical promise that AI (artificial intelligence) will enable “machine learning to tell you what consumers will like.”

AI, a cybertrend now infesting the internet and bewildering the public, is the latest in a long line of panaceas offered by the wizards of high tech.

The very first time I heard this lie, I said, “Wait a minute! There’s a version of AI on Amazon that’s been trying for ten years to suss out what I like. It’s batting roughly fifty points below the Mendoza Line. Product popularity is the great black box of capitalism. And now, Amazon’s is claiming a mental machine — a techno-panacea — that can coax open my box?”

AI, a cybertrend now infesting the internet and bewildering the public, is the latest in a long line of panaceas offered by the wizards of high tech. Like its forebears, including the internet itself — once grandiosely dubbed “the information superhighway” — it is touted as the philosopher’s stone of human convenience.

It will wipe away hours and hours of tedious clerical labor. It will replace dull,  thankless jobs with intelligent robotics. It will reduce, to a few lightning minutes, research that might have once taken years. It will even accomplish what neither Aesculapius nor the beleaguered Dr. Anthony Fauci ever could, advancing medical science — robotically — to the point where diagnosis and treatment will be so swift and infallible that no disease can withstand the android onslaught of AI.

However, evidence that AI has panacea genes, is scarce. Anyone who follows the issue is aware that “generative AI,” supposedly capable of speed-writing term papers, novels and Supreme Court decisions, is behaving less like a stenographer and more like a malignant virus, infecting the internet, media and even government sites with misinformation, disinformation and totally fabricated crapola.

I’m not alone in my skepticism. The European Union is already drafting the first set of restrictions on AI. Word is that the U.S. Congress is also convening committees and drafting memos about problems potentially posed by AI’s proliferation. This is impressive for an organization where many of its most prominent and powerful members still think the internet is a sprawling national network of pneumatic tubes which, curiously, nobody has ever seen.

I think the hustlers and dreamers now selling AI as a panacea are abetted by the fact that you can’t see AI, any more than you can see — except in legend and imagination — the transformation of lead into gold or Panacea herself in the flesh.

We both trust and doubt solutions that are present, visible and produced by the hand of man. The U.S. Constitution is, perhaps, the most perfect document ever composed to regulate the politics, ethics and economics of a human community. Its saving grace is that, even before it was written and signed, nobody expected it to work flawlessly, as evidenced by the disputes and compromises bandied among the authors of The Federalist Papers. Both the skeptics and advocates of the Constitution have been vindicated in their foresight. The document has been amended 27 times, at least once to correct a previous amendment.

We have argued over the meaning of the Constitution for two centuries, and we have yet to agree on many of its passages. But the argument is open — and accessible — to everyone because it is tangible, visible, readable. It’s ink on paper.

AI, like the myths of Achilles’ spear and Medea’s kettle, is invisible, beyond our sight and, beyond our experience and, for the most part, beyond our ken. It is a mystery, which makes it viscerally alluring to millions who want to believe in the beam-transporter on the Starship Enterprise and George Jetson’s flying car. It is a mystery, which makes it fodder for Silicon Valley con men and TV admen to sell it as a bill of goods that will right all wrongs, cure all ills and grow hair on a cue ball.

In the AWS commercial — in which machines have the potential to read human minds and plumb our desires — the manifestation of this wish is the conjuring, through the miracle of AI, of a giant. He (or she?) vaguely resembles Shrek, but he’s big enough to rival Fierabras in both magnitude and magic.

The trick, though — as with all things AI — is that the giant is a mere hologram. We can see through him. He’s without substance, an illusion summoned through code that’s gobbledegook to all but a handful of cloistered creators with whom the rest of us have neither contact nor communication.

I don’t mean to suggest that seeing — and only seeing — is believing. There are many things in existence that we can’t see but are not myths, fancies or alchemy. We know they’re there, like electricity and radio waves. We know these phenomena not visually, but by what they do. We know, also, what they cannot do. They are useful but not universally so. A similar compromise, between possibility and reality, will be, very likely, the destiny of AI.

In the meantime, it’s best to remember that electricity can kill you.

David Benjamin, an author, essayist and veteran journalist, has been examining the human element in high technology for more than 20 years. His novels and non-fiction books, published by Last Kid Books, have won more than a dozen literary awards. Most recently, his coming-of-age novel, They Shot Kennedy, had won the 2021 Midwest Book award in the category of literary/contemporary/historical fiction.

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