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It’s Not What It Looks Like

Our natural tendency to connect meaning with images is both a strength and a vulnerability

The human brain tends to think concretely. We barter thoughts, words, and ideas through images. It’s why metaphorical language can be so powerful in conveying otherwise abstract ideas. I immediately think of the verse in the Bible: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). It’s hard for me to picture justice on its own, but a raging waterfall? That’s a powerful image. I can now imagine what justice, in some aspect, might look like.

Our natural tendency to think this way is both a strength and a vulnerability. A recent article from The Stream relates the human imagination to the current conversation over AI. While the debates rage over AI’s most pertinent threats, Jeff Gardner argues that we actually pose the biggest threat to ourselves, based on how our minds tend to function. He writes,

AI’s danger to us does not lie in fakery, even deep fakery. Its danger to us is its ability to manufacture frames. The danger posed to us by frames comes from within us. The reason for this vulnerability is that our brains are hardwired to assign meaning to images. Even this text is nothing more than a string of images to which our brains have assigned a meaning.

Our brain’s “see this, assume that” function is physiological. The brain makes up about 2% of total body mass yet takes almost 25% of energy expenditure. If we had to think about what to do in every situation we would drop over from exhaustion before midday.

-Jeff Gardner, What Makes AI Dangerous to You? In a Word, You. – The Stream

Gardner goes on to describe how the tobacco industry used visual advertising to try and get more women to smoke. In the 1920s, a tobacco company staged an event where women smoked publicly, and shortly thereafter more women were buying cigarettes. The image, associated with the message of how and why smoking is great for women, was a powerful motivator to buy the product.

100 years later and we have the same problem, though now times a million. Gardner continues,

And because you, all of us, are vulnerable to assigned meaning in images, you can expect AI to engage you, probe at you, and craft images and messages to you, in order to get you to buy and do things that make “you” feel like “you.”

Gardner situates AI in the longstanding American tendency to commodify life and experience; it’s a sober recognition that for all its potential benefits to society, AI can be weaponized against people and used to hijack our vulnerability to manipulation and deception. It’s hard to say at this early stage how that will all play out, but Gardner believes we need a recovery of our sense of identity and personal worth to withstand what might be coming.

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Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

It’s Not What It Looks Like