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AI's 'Functional' Imperative

What would Frank Capra's characters say about OpenAI?
AI's 'Functional' Imperative
Movie poster of 'Meet John Doe' is1941 American film by Frank Capra. (Image: Waner Bros.)

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By David Benjamin

“I remember telling myself: This isn’t going to last. I thought there was too much money floating around. These people may be earnest researchers, but whether they know it or not, they are still in a race to put out products, generate revenue and be first.”

— David Brooks, New York Times

Coincident with the turmoil that ended with Sam Altman’s reinstatement at the top of OpenAI and the drastic restructuring of the artificial intelligence laboratory’s board of directors, I happened to watch Frank Capra’s classic film, Meet John Doe.

Although released in 1941, the movie reflected the trauma of the Great Depression.

The filmmaker set up a sharp, dramatic contrast between the manipulators of the economy against its hapless and powerless pawns — the ordinary folks, the John Does. The plot is premised on what we now call “fake news,” a con. In order to keep her reporting job and avoid sinking into the bog of unemployment and desperation that afflicts millions of Americans, a columnist, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) writes a phony letter to the editor. She poses, fictionally, as an angry, despairing common man who promises to throw himself off the top of the newspaper building on Christmas Eve, in protest against the myriad misfortunes and injustices that were rampant in the nation and seemingly insurmountable. She signs it, “John Doe”.

To perpetuate the illusion, the newspaper recruits a John Doe imposter from the vast ranks of the homeless and jobless. Their choice is John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a former bush-league baseball pitcher. By writing his speeches and sending him nationwide on goodwill tours, during which he spouts clichéd denunciations of politicians and big business, the phony John Doe — who is, of course, as self-effacing and likable as, well, Gary Cooper — spawns a movement. “John Doe Clubs,” which renounce any involvement in the political establishment, soon cover the nation. Millions join up, organizing, marching, creating a cult of personality. John Doe becomes the most popular man in America.

The dirty secret behind the John Doe movement, however, is that its source was a lie propagated by the media, with the reach to influence millions of credulous people. Above the heads of the common folk, the powerful press forms inevitable alliances with the leaders of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “organized money” and with the most ambitious and ruthless political operative in America, a malignant narcissist named D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold).

Unbeknownst to John Willoughby, the John Doe movement has been completely coopted by the rich, the powerful, the greedy and the amoral. The only character in the film who suspects the truth is the Colonel (Walter Brennan), Willoughhby’s cynical sidekick.

This is where I come in. If I were close to the inner circle of the OpenAI melodrama, I’d be Walter Brennan, glaring at the entire cast and referring to them, dismissively, as “helots,” the Colonel’s universal word for both the world’s hustlers and suckers who get hustled.

At the top of OpenAI, which is inexorably allying itself with the constellation of high-tech megacorporations that have spread out from Silicon Valley, I see a cloistered elite not much different from the media moguls, crooked pols and tycoons who trick a million John Does into blind allegiance to their counterfeit hero. The technologists of artificial intelligence, for all their good intentions, live in a digital monastery, as cut off from John Doe as the billionaires who provide the money for their research and expect windfall profits in return.

In Meet John Doe, the mission of the deluded hero was to give voice to the voiceless, to enlist so many people to question the status quo that the little guy could finally be heard in the corridors of power and the fortresses of wealth.

If the ethic of Capra’s John Doe were applied to the rise and seemingly revolutionary promise of artificial intelligence, there would be a lot of questions to ask — few of which have been answered either by AI’s technicians or its sponsors.

‘I know how you gentlemen will benefit from the proliferation of AI. It will make you richer, more powerful and more impregnable than ever before. You will be the veritable gods of technology. But what’s in it for me?’

For example, if Gary Cooper — in character, wearing rags with dirt on his face — were allowed to sit down at one of those immense Frank Capra boardroom tables, across from OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and board moguls Adam D’Angelo (chief executive of Quora), Lawrence H. Summers (former Treasury secretary) and Bret Taylor (former honcho at Facebook and Salesforce), he might begin by saying, “I know you gentlemen are rich and powerful. Technologically, you’re brilliant and so far above me that I must look to you like one of those specks beneath the Ferris wheel in The Third Man. I know — we all know because it’s all over the news — how you gentlemen will benefit from the proliferation of AI. It will make you richer, more powerful and more impregnable than ever before. You will be the veritable gods of technology.”

Cooper might continue then, curiously, saying, “But what’s in it for me? What’s in it for the rest of us, who are not and will never be, rich or powerful? We know you can do anything you want. Nobody can stop you. But why are you doing this at all?  More to the point, what are you doing? You’ve gone ahead, as you always do, without explaining anything. How do we understand what you’re doing? In providing you with what you want, what do we have to give up? How will we have to change? How much will be have to change? What will we have to learn if we have any hope of figuring out what the hell’s going on? What will we have to forget? What’s the price we will have to pay in our lives, our jobs, our families?

“What, in short, are the consequences for us, the great mass of ordinary working people, to advance your technology, your enrichment and your everlasting glory?”

At which, Gary Cooper would flash that famous shy smile and add, “Just wondering, fellas.”

In a little-noted book called Functionaries, published more than fifty years ago, sociologist F.W. Howton discussed the paradox of “functional rationality” and “substantive rationality.” Functional rationality, in Howton’s definition, was focused entirely on means. If the tools, technology and motive exists to take a particular action, nothing stands in the way of going right ahead and doing it. In contrast, substantive rationality considers — before going right ahead — the need to take this action, its consequences, its effect on people and institution. Put simply, it’s looking before you leap.

Howton used the war in Vietnam as an example of functional rationality. Its founding premise was every bit as specious as Barbara Stanwyck’s John Doe letter. Nonetheless, it raged on for more than two decades, throwing unprecedented levels of technology, firepower and destruction into an enterprise that, in an end foreseen by Howton, accomplished nothing.

Frank Capra —if he were with us now — would likely argue that the functionalists, since Howton, Vietnam and Meet John Doe, have prevailed more often than they have agreed to wait a minute and think it over.

He might ask the big shots and earnest geeks at OpenAI, simply, “Are you doing this because you should, or just because you can?

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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