Smooth Operator: Artificial Intelligence and the Agony of Personal Initiative

Human existence, as possibility and ongoing project (Sartre, 1956), is the anticipation, the expectation, the sentiment of what will be. The future is our fundamental existential dimension (Heidegger, 1962). Existence is always stretched out towards the possible of a horizon that death renders elastic. To attempt to escape the anguish felt before the power of a future that is our responsibility, we tend to apply a form of bad faith that transforms the future into an object, a determined thing that is happening without our consent. Today a dominant figure of this objectified future is Artificial Intelligence, a.k.a AI.

An ironical mise en abyme makes this moment of our technological destiny particularly significant: as an industrial tool, artificial intelligence is itself more and more used as a predictive, prescriptive and anticipatory media. AI is not only the fetishized future that allows us to surrender our responsibility, but it is also an objectifying tool itself, transforming uncertainty into probabilities and patterns into certainties. In anticipating an automated future, humans are attempting to automate anticipation itself. Rather than simply distinguishing what is fairer or less chocking in terms of choice between several objectified futures, the ethics of automation must question our nihilism, the subject’s “passion of abolition” or “great disgust” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987).

The disgust or discouragement of being human is one of the blind spots of our ethics of machine intelligence. Appeals to a human-centric and more humane technology are today unanimous, leaving a taboo in its shade in the form of murmured questions: are we humans, so much better than machines? Are machines not our other, because of our tendency to act in autopilot mode evidenced by psychology (Raichle et al, 2001). Worse, are machines not better than us? They don’t lie, they don’t kill, they don’t betray, they don’t get sick, and technology itself never gets old or vulnerable (only its applications do) since it is today the realm of the new. To cure ourselves from such nihilistic temptations, we need understand anew that being human-centric should not amount to a list of objective qualities that humans would have, because if any quality could be objectified then it could possibly be quantified, simulated or automated. Being human-centric can only mean, in the existentialist sense: open to the conscious subject as pure possibility of creation. Open to the Creal.

What the ethics of automation are about is this revelation and actualization of the subject as openness to creation, responsibility and freedom as personal initiative rather than choice between objectified and quantified options. In this sense, extensive automation, as the one permitted by AI can in fact be a global existential opportunity for humanity.

By revealing our future illiteracy (Miller, 2018) and vulnerability to objectification in terms of future predictions and data analysis, anticipatory media also puts us in front of the responsibility of our freedom, by suggesting we question once more the notion of personal initiative. Hyper-prediction and artificial anticipatory intelligence could mean the end of personal initiative, if automatic decisions and analytic prescriptions become part of our everyday experience. But precisely by placing the phenomenon of personal initiative under high pressure and menace, artificial intelligence might liberate human active intelligence at last. In the 21st century, humanity will need to choose between a) achieving total smoothness as in any dystopian novel in the manner of Brave New World (Huxley, 1932) and b) preserving roughness (Wittgenstein, 1953). Artificial intelligence and automation are very good at smoothing the world, eliminating complications, noise, favoring flow, effectivity, and creating user-friendly experiences: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk, so we need friction. Back to the rough ground.” (Wittgenstein, 1953, §107).

Delegating the care for the future to machines in the form of analytic prediction and data-based prescription is tempting, but in the end it manifests the illusion of a non-mediated existence, one of pure smoothness: a world of inertia.


Deleuze, G. and Félix Guattari (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,

Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row.

Huxley, A. (1932) Brave New World. London: Chatto & Windus

Miller, R. (2018), Transforming the Future: Anticipation in the 21st century. London: Routledge.

Raichle, M. E. (2001), et al. “A Default Mode of Brain Function”, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 98 (2).

Sartre, J.-P. (1956). Being and nothingness. Oxford, England: Philosophical Library.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.




Gabriel Schreiber & Roberto Umansky

The mathematical theory of bifurcation originated in the seminal work of Henri Poincaré on systems of non-linear differential equations. The term bifurcation was coined by Poincaré to designate the emergence of several solutions from a given solution. Whenever the solution to an equation, or system of equations, changes qualitatively at a fixed value of a parameter, called a critical value, the phenomenon is called a bifurcation. The point in the parameter space where such an event occurs is defined a bifurcation point. From a bifurcation point several stable or unstable solution branches emerge. Successive bifurcations lead to an irregular and unpredictable time evolution of deterministic nonlinear systems, which is designated chaos. The unique character of chaotic dynamics is their sensitivity to initial conditions as described by Poincaré:

“It may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena. A small error in the former will produce an enormous error in the latter. Prediction becomes impossible, and we have the fortuitous phenomenon” (397).


If prediction becomes impossible, it is evident that a chaotic system can resemble a stochastic system (a system subject to random external forces). However, the source of the irregularity is quite different. For chaos, the irregularity is part of the intrinsic dynamics of the system, rather than unpredictable outside influences. Chaos enables determinism and unpredictability to coexist in the same system. Moreover, surprisingly, a very well defined universal route, which leads from order to chaos, was discovered by Mitchell Feigenbaum. There are abrupt qualitative changes: ordered successive bifurca- tions, which mark a universally ordered transition from order to chaos: Feigenbaum’s universality. The idea of bifurcation is central to contemporary physical theories of irreversible, far-from equilibrium thermodynamics. The contributions of Prigogine’s Brussels School (Prigogine, Prigogine & Stengers) in this regard are of prime importance, showing that bifurcations under far-from-equilibrium conditions constitute the natural mechanism of evolution and of acquisition of complexity.

With a sense of derealization, it may seem strange to the reader that this text has fallen into a journal on literature. What has it to do with literature? What has it to do with Borges? We may be reminded by the metaphysicians of Tlön who “Judge that metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy”. Borges once claimed that the basic devises of all fantastic literature are only four in number: the work within a work, the contamination of reality by dream, the voyage in time, and the double (Irby xviii).


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Causality and anticipation

Analysis of the concept of anticipation can contribute to the philosophy of biology. J. M. Burgers 

“The purpose of this article is to renew discussion of the problem whether the phe- nomena of life can be satisfactorily ana- lyzed and explained on the basis of the laws discovered in the physical sciences, or whether more is needed. When mentioning the physical sciences, I have in mind the physical laws as they are formulated at present, with the trend of thinking that forms their present background. Otherwise the problem would become indefinite. I wish to consider the thesis that the features of life involve relations not covered by the present formulation of the physical laws, relations which, although not amenable to quantitative analysis, nevertheless play a decisive part in many reactions of living organisms. The problem is, on one hand, how to put this in appropriate terms, and on the other, to analyze some con- sequences of the thesis. It is useful to start with a brief recapitulation of what may be called the central doctrine of the laws of physics, namely the idea of causal relation- ship. This will be given in the next section. The principal argument concerning the need for extension to another form of rela- tionship is presented in the third section of the article. It is taken from features of our human mental life.”

Causality and Anticipation

Author(s): J. M. Burgers

Source: Science, New Series, Vol. 189, No. 4198 (Jul. 18, 1975), pp. 194-198

Published by: American Association for the Advancement of Science

Causality and Anticipation, Burgers