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.



Author: Luis de Miranda


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