The story of artificial intelligence has been largely centered on intelligent machines destroying our jobs and working identities, but, as I argue in a new edition of Concepts of the Self, it is revealing how it is also transforming our personal lives and our deepest sense of self. How are current developments in AI, advanced robotics and accelerating automation impacting the self? How might we conceive of identity and the self in the aftermath of AI?
Bernard Stiegler flawlessly captured the gist of today’s Zeigtgeist with his postulation of a “total autonomization” of society, ranging from employment, finance and law to production, consumption and enterprise. But AI is not simply an ‘out-there’ phenomenon, as if technologies operate with straightforward given properties and causal effects upon institutions, organizations and networks. Technologies, on the contrary, are always mediated through personal experience and the self, entangled in our everyday ways of doing things and the living of lives. If digital technologies transfigure institutions, they also reach profoundly into individual identities. If AI impacts work and employment, so too it transfigures intimate life and social relations in the broadest sense. The digital is both around us and inside us. From this angle, AI and digital technologies become raw materials for the production and performance of the self.
AI is creating new opportunities and new burdens for the self. These new opportunities and new burdens sit alongside each other, cheek-by-jowl. From ordering an Uber to the monitoring of exercise on a Fitbit tracker, and from personal virtual assistants such as Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa to AI-powered predictive analytics: the production of the self has become increasingly interwoven with digital technologies. AI is transforming what self-formation and self-experience actually mean. In conditions of advanced AI, the influence of digitally mediated materials on social relationships, and on the personal life of the self, become more pronounced.
Social media, cloud computing and machine learning more broadly plays a central role here. But so too do smart products, services and devices, 3-D printing, intelligent ecosystems, virtual reality, augmented reality, and smart algorithms. One significant way in which these technological changes impact the self is in the movement away from face-to-face interaction, which has traditionally characterized social organization, and towards new forms of digitally mediated interaction which transforms our basic coordinates of time and space. With the spread of intelligent machines, and especially chatbots and softbots, new forms of communication and new ways of talking in public and in private are fast spreading throughout offices, companies and organizations, as well as homes, restaurants and leisure spaces. Again, all of this significantly impacts upon and reorganizes the self.
A “total autonomization” of the self? Not necessarily. MIT engineer and historian David Mindell contends that the stark dividing lines drawn in both contemporary science and social science between humans and automated machines result in inadequate understanding of the complexity of AI. Mindell demonstrates that human-machine systems increasingly embed “delicately switching in and out of automatic modes”. Confronting this switching, and what it means for the social science of the self, will not be easy. Conundrums abound in current thinking about AI, since on the one hand it is very sophisticated concerning machine learning, deep learning and algorithmic complexity; on the other hand, we lack a systematic understanding of how different identities, selves and lifestyles are altered by, and respond to, the risks of AI. The major challenge is to better understand if and how new types of actors emerge – that is, new kinds of self as drivers of social-political transformation.
Anthony Elliott is Executive Director of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence at the University of South Australia, where he is Research Professor of Sociology and Dean of External Engagement. He is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. The author and editor of over 40 books in social theory, his most recent book Concepts of the Self is now available through Polity as a fully revised and expanded Fourth Edition.