Our fear of artificial intelligence

Our murderous and sometimes fatalistic obsession with artificial intelligence is fueled not only by the success of the latest technological developments, but also by a background imbued with anxiety. We are suffering from the major economic and social transformations that took place in the past decades, the health and financial crises, and the fear of increasing social and economic polarization that will end up exploding the layers of Western democracies with populist explosions.

All of this rhymes with the European period between the two wars, which viciously bred a fear of robots no less acute than it is today. Then the fear of a populist explosion that could destroy fragile democracies coincided with this sense of vulnerability. In addition, as is the case today with China, a superpower arose, the Soviet Union, which terrorized Europe and offered another way of existence in the world.

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This fear has fueled massive economic and social transformations: from the first wave of globalization, during the decades preceding the Great War, to the dismemberment of subsequent empires. To this should be added the popularization of Tellurism in factories or the dizzying expansion of active women’s suffrage, which if it was sown in four states in 1914, in 1939 it spread to 28 more. All these economic and social transformations have also brought to the fore fierce identity disputes.

The shocking effect of the First World War and the growing suspicion, later confirmed, that there would be a sequel, the health crisis of the erroneously named Spanish Flu and the double economic crisis (the first that followed the Great War, which we now define as the post-war recession, and then that hit the moon after The crash of 1929) triggered a state of constant anxiety and a state of restlessness that would rival, and perhaps even exceed, the vertigo many feel today.


Wall Street in the crash of ’29.

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Minsoo Kang, a historian at the University of Missouri-St. Lewis, describes V Sublime dreams of living machines A fast-paced journey through the dreams of European robots and the fantasies of art and literature from the ancient world to World War II.

In the 1990s, technological optimism and the feeling of an “end of history” that would bring us a new world, always simpler and with fewer contradictions, prevailed socially. In the same way, in the decades before World War I, there were many authors, such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Auguste Villiers, Alfred Jarry or Raymond Roussel, who set their novels outside the historical dynamics of their time and passionately believed in a new world that humans would create, blending into Eternal mechanisms governed by electromagnetism and the laws of thermodynamics. They were expecting the happy version of posthumanism.

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Filippo Tommaso Marinetti poses with many future publications

That all changed in the 1920s, when writers incorporated into their “science fiction” many of the experiences and fears of the post-war world (such as class struggle, the possibility of proletarian revolution, and the condemnation of squalid working conditions and harsh conditions). social inequality or the increasing political and social role of women). The intelligent machines that appear on its pages are generally characterized by their lethal violence and ability to destroy society.

Cover of Amazing Stories magazine (1928).

The cover of Amazing Stories magazine, 1928.

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in MetropolisIn Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, the enormous tension generated by the uprising of the proletarians against the capitalist elite trying to replace them with machines in factories requires the intervention of a charismatic leader.

At the same time RURIn Karel Chapek’s 1920 novel, serfs (both human and mechanical) unleash gross violence against some elites who doom them to peril or servitude. Later, robots will advance on humans, suddenly sterile and destroyed by war, which, however, will increasingly resemble. These robots are developing the ability to love, love each other, and even the desire to have children. It is in it that your young man places his hope that the best of our civilization will end up surviving.

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Still from “Metropolis” by Friz Lang.

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The apocalypse described by creators like Šabac would not have happened, according to their opinion, if men had not defied nature by destroying fields and rivers with mechanization and industry, or disdained sympathy for the weak as if they were humiliating weaknesses. , women’s love. Or the desire to start a family, they are all emotional needs that make us human.

Predicting the protagonist Marinetti in his novel future dreamSince 1909, machines have liberated us from the supposed vulnerability and sentimentality of women (and points out as a merit that automata need neither be loved nor be born of them). Instead, the heroines who appeared in European science fiction novels immediately after World War I act as the only ones who can avoid self-destruction. A self-destruction that would inevitably lead to that masculine leadership obsessed with power, which confuses technological progress with social progress and transfers its aggressiveness and intransigence to machines. Under these circumstances, women’s participation is not only a right, but a basic necessity for the continued existence of civilization and the need not to dehumanize men.

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In any case, this is what we are describing is a period when it becomes more and more difficult for many to distinguish between man and machine. There are not a few who consider the imminent arrival of robots capable of loving, hating and thinking. In parallel, the German painter Georg Grosz dedicated a series in 1920 to robotic people, and in one of his works (daum gets married…) He even drew himself as a robot next to his future wife. Thinkers who mock street robots and denounce their automata, it seems, can also become robots or be no less than the people they represent … Because are they also not part of the new mass society?


Fueled by nationalism and a romantic vision of war, many men considered themselves to have acted as mere mechanical dummies and cannon fodder in the trenches since 1914, always at the service of officers and politicians. They also believed that they saw with their own eyes early humans cooperating and merging somewhat with machines to attack other humans (such as tank or airplane pilots in the Great War). Also, the early workers were exposed to the rhythms of the machines they worked in, as they understood what happened in the assembly lines and Taylor factories, where there were even guards who watched over the operators.

Science fiction works of the period are also introduced to us, in Minsoo Kang’s Journey, through a sense of uneasiness. Robots, which once promised to overcome human limitations, have suddenly emerged as receptacles for our worst instincts for death, domination, and power.


Robot George in 1932.

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This was the case, for example, in a text Machines rebelWritten by Romain Rolland, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, it has never been brought to the big screen. The Lords of Progress, after the Great War, became heralds of the end of the world. Rowland also proposes a disturbing hypothesis of our time: artificial intelligence will never be peaceful as long as its human creators do not stop being violent. According to him, machines capture and amplify our instincts, rather than bypassing them. They inherit the worst of our biology, even if they don’t share it.

The playwright Ruggero Vasari denounced the The pain of machines (1923) The limits of the brain and the cult of the brain, the organ which, according to him, must always remain connected to the emotional needs of the body. Interestingly enough, he raises it, says Kang, at a time when machines, which, for the humans who merged with them, represented the hope of not being overwhelmed, restless, or mentally ill, were identified with the worst of human psychological flaws.

In a similar fashion to Cold War schizophrenics, America was convinced that the Soviets were trying to manipulate them through radios and televisions, in 1919 Freud’s disciple Victor Tusk exhaustively described the illness from which many schizophrenics suffered. Manipulate them from a distance with the machines of madness.

Of course, from Vasari’s play to Fritz Lang’s film, through Roland’s screenplay, Čapek’s novel or Grosz’s picture series, all this “machine” art between the two wars cannot embody all the great reactions.social problems caused by the future advent of an electromechanical world.

Dom married her pedantic robot George in May 1920, by George Grosz.

Dom married her pedantic robot, George, in May 1920, by George Grosz.

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After World War I, there were still, as there are today, millions of techno-optimists who were awestruck by the new technical developments and celebrated them as the success of mankind in its unstoppable gallop toward higher levels of well-being. At the same time, there were also many pre-1914 technology skeptics and even pessimists, such as the writer Samuel Butler.

What these extraordinary works of Lange, Gross, or Schpak convey to us is the disruption of a different sensibility that was beginning to dominate the discussion. A sensitivity characterized by fear, pain, and the vulnerability of human beings in the face of the world, bodies, desire, and progress that we have not been able – and cannot – control.

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