On consciousness, ChatGPT and things you’re (still) good at

This post is in English as it is going to talk about a fairly hot topic and is probably intended for a slightly broader audience than my core readers — that is, my mom, my French-speaking me and my Russian-speaking me. You might also consider it a note to self that I wrote to future me and that then, due to some odd spatio-temporal phenomenon, got to you. Maybe you are future me, and you’re reading this with your trademark chuckle and that unique expression on your face that combines almost the equivalent amounts of self-contempt, self-doubt and poorly hidden admiration for your own style which, by means of the same spatio-temporal phenomenon that has been mentioned above, forces me to abruptly end this drawn-out introduction and proceed to the actual topic. The AI! The Doomsday! The terminators! The end of the world! Alright, alright, I don’t think it makes any sense to throw desperate clickbait words around now in the hope that people will keep reading, as all those who couldn’t support my style should have been gone by the middle of this paragraph. I’m just going to be me.

I am an artist. I don’t like saying this, as there seems to be no way to put it out without sounding pretentious, bitchy and condescending for the rest of your discourse. But that’s what I am: a pretentious artist that claims to be a bilingual poet and a multi-instrumental musician at the same time, an artist who’s been doing his art for ages and who has just recently caught someone — or shall I say something — red-handed while trying to silently steal this from them. What do you mean by “this” here, Jan? Is this your writing that is so entangled that I lose the subject, or is the subject so slippery that I didn’t catch it? In this case, probably the latter, darling. What is being stolen from me is “doing art”. I am still me, I live my life, I wake up, I smell coffee, I squint at the rare sunshine that pierces through the uniformly gray skies of the East German town I live in, I sit at the piano, I get ready for my regular routine, and then I hear this in my head: “What are the health benefits of peanut butter?”. Or: “What exercises should you avoid with back pain?”. Or— you get the idea. What does this have to do with the Augmented Lydian scale workout I was going to run through in order to warm up? Nothing. Or — almost nothing, unless I pause for a second and try to catch the elusive thought.

As I was seating myself on the piano bench, my body moved in a particular way, that caused a brisk sensation of discomfort in my lumbar spine, which made me think of the herniated disk that I supposedly have, which might, as I have learned, get worse due to lack of certain proteins common in vegan diets, which, in turn, might be supplemented if one consumes protein-rich foods such as peanut butter, which might — or might not, due to its high omega-6 content — be a good addition to a balanced diet, because diet, combined with exercise, is the basis of a harmonious and healthy lifestyle, and, talking about exercises, as long as I have back pain, which ones are sa—

I shook off the mesmerising feeling of stupor that was taking over me and made an effort to focus my vision that had become blurred as my eye muscles relaxed during the mental tangent. Turned out I’ve spent about a half an hour thinking about things that I was not even planning to think of when I opened the piano lid and looked at the page of sheet music — far away from the screens, years after defeating the Facebook addiction, deep in my wet, bony, biochemical reality that was supposed to be a safe place. It wasn’t any more. None of the thoughts that have just flown through my head originated from me, none of them were mine, none of them were triggered by my own mind. They were semantic implants in my reasoning, noise waves engulfing the signal of my mind, construction signs planted there by the hands of men in yellow jackets that someone — or something — has recruited to erect a strange building on the uncharted sloppy grounds of the wildest of all Wests — my consciousness.

I need to make a remark here, so we’re on the same page. I am one of those people who believe that consciousness is real. I am with David Chalmers, Philip Goff, Henry Bergson — to put it simple, I am a hard-core dualist. That is, by “consciousness” I mean that strange and at the same time the most (if not only) familiar thing in the world that you have in you, the one that reads these words right now and notes what it feels like to read, what it feels like to read a word, how weird it feels to be pointed at the moment of doing so; what it feels like to be, what it feels like to be you and not me (unless it’s me that is reading).

The consciousness is this odd substance — for the lack of a better word, although also as a nod to substance dualism — that you carry in your head right here and right now and that at the same time (for the terrible lack of a better expression) seems to be evenly smeared across your entire past and some of your future, making your eyeballs move and your body muscles contract when you plunge into a particularly vivid memory or try to envisage some important upcoming event. The consciousness is at the same time what you see, how you see and why you see it. And when you look into your memory, you will find it there, rolled into the barrels of what, how and why, lined up in immense stacks towering out of sight, forming the countryside of your childhood, the boroughs of your teens, the streets of your adult life.

The consciousness is that axis that twirls and wiggles, trying to put itself alongside the already crumbled axes of space and time without completely destroying our fragile picture of the world, it is a ship — or rather a boat — or, probably, a mere piece of wood floating on the surface of the deep and cold ocean of time, upon which teeters a desperate survivor of an evolutionary shipwreck, shivering in the freezing Antarctic night under the indifferent stars and clinging to the numbing fingers of their dying lover.

The consciousness is something you have if you’re aware. And it’s something you’re robbed of when you’re not.

Now, why did I just go on this long tangent about consciousness and dualism? What in the world does this have to do with experiencing sudden Google attacks during your seemingly entirely analog activity? Well, it seems like there is no link, but, if you look close enough — by which I mean, really close: zoom in so much that there is no zoom any more, and then squint at the pixelated image to see that tiny insignificant dot that I am pointing at. This is it. That’s you, to paraphrase Carl Sagan. This is you googling the health benefits of peanut butter, and that, this pixel close by, that is another person, a complete stranger on the other side of the planet, seated in their cozy backyard, her tanned legs in new glaring white sneakers reposing on the plastic garden table, her eyes half-shut in the soft afternoon dream that is morphing into a tender poolside evening filled with nothing but murmur of familiar voices and blinking of the screen which beams an incessant chain of videos at her face, suppressing the question of how did she even get there from the benign googling of the paleo diet basics. Here’s another one, a person that is closer to you, that is actually speaking your language, that actually is almost your age and has a fairly similar impatient way of typing while omitting the accents and apostrophes, here they are typing something about exercises, and accepting the entire phrase that the autocomplete algorithm gently prompts them, providing them with that same feeling of comfort and reassurance that relaxes the eyes muscles and lets the reality — and with it, the necessity of experiencing it — slowly drift away into the sea of information noise.

The first-person experience. Another philosophical concept that I need to make myself clear on. If we go back to the host of definitions of consciousness that I gave a couple of paragraphs before, we’ll see that in my discourse, these are basically interchangeable. The first-person experience is what the world feels to me. When I see a colour, I have an experience of that colour, and that experience cannot be confused with anything else. When I have an orgasm, I have the experience of having an orgasm, and there is something about it that I’ve learned when I first time had it that well always be the thing about orgasms: its intrinsic nature. The how, the why, the what. Stuff the world is made of, stuff I get from it when I’m in it, stuff that I am, stuff that no one else is. The consciousness, voilà.

You know what does not have consciousness? ChatGPT. Right, we’re coming to the meat (pun intended) of this post at last. The artificial intelligence does not possess consciousness. It is not aware of what it is doing. It does not drink the why’s, the how’s and the what’s of the world, nor does it line them up in the endless stacks of the poorly labelled barrels of memory or emanate it immediately in the form of tears, sobs, screams, tender whisper and hate-infested speeches. It does not experience the redness of the red colour or the orgasm-ness of an orgasm, the curvature of the streets of the old city centre and the Jan-ness of an author that won’t stop even after making himself clear several times.

AI doesn’t live in that weird and shaky dimension we’ve introduced to already shaky Euclidean space, it doesn’t keep afloat on the surface of the ocean of time, it doesn’t cling on to the piece of wood, it sinks straight down, to the very bottom of void, to the cold zero of our screwed up coordinate system that we’ve been using with more or less success over the centuries.

ChatGPT gives you a phrase that sounds like it has been written by a real person, a voice-generating AI speaks to you in a manner that sounds like a real human speaking, an image-generating AI creates a painting for you that looks like it has been created by a real artist — but there’s nothing behind them. The lights are not on, as Chalmers puts it. But you know who makes them look like this, sound like this, feel like this? You guessed it. You. You, the one with the consciousness. Because you’re the only one who knows “like”. Like, for real. Because, remember, consciousness is the thing that picks up the “what-it’s-likeness” of things, of sounds, of people, of feelings.

The problem with this is that your amazing capacity of making things real by assigning the “what-it’s-likeness” to them is also your immense vulnerability. Coming back to that episode I had the morning my piano routine was interrupted by some unrelated random facts, this is a perfect example of something absolutely informational and aleatoric that has somehow found its way into the tower of my first-person experience (that is supposed to be impregnable, right?) because I, in a generous and rather ill-considered gesture, decided to provide it with a conscious character by granting it a “what-it’s-likeness”. What does it feel like to sit at the piano on an early Saturday morning in front of a window left ajar, through which the room is filled with the chilly air of mid-March and the rays of the rising sun that highlight the grains of dust settling down on the bed cover in your tiny bedroom producer apartment? Like— ERR— googling the health benefits of peanut butter? See, this is where my consciousness got broken into. In order to fix it, I had to manually remove that ugly nail, seal the breach and cover the aching surface with a 5-dimensional analog of a band-aid (that my consciousness had immediately started to try to scratch off, feeling the itch of an acquired habit).

When the robot apocalypse arrives, the only safe place for you to hide would be your own head — unless you let algorithms populate it with fake thoughts — the warehouse of your memories — unless you let generated images poison them — and your dreams — unless you let them be replaced by desires, subtly swapping the “what it feels like” with its lookalikes.

It is kind of considered good manners these days to end an AI-bashing post with a reconciliatory phrase like “With all this being said, I am not against AI, I am more worried about its misuse, should it fall into the wrong hands, blah-blah-blah”, but I, being me and addressing to the audience that I have, I am free to not hold back or cover my words with sugar frosting. I think that conversational AI is crap, and that reality is the biggest fun. I love consciousness. The universe is my girlfriend. First-person first. Back to work now.

Further reading

  1. Henry Bergson (1889). “Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience”.
  2. David Chalmers (1996). “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory”.
  3. Philip Goff (2019). “Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness”.