Artificial intelligence and alienation

May you live in interesting times. It leaves the reader with a feeling of anticipation. Interesting times are times of catastrophe, suffering and upheaval. When this sinks in, the reader realises that he, in fact, does not want to live in interesting times. Therefore, the phrase is often used as a curse.

The growth of artificial intelligence fits perfectly into the narrative of our time. If not interesting, they are definitely promising: the better technology we have the better our lives will be. Living in a capitalist reality, the promise of the productivity which artificial intelligence offers grants the ideal of not compromising production while giving workers more free time. It sounds almost utopian, doesn’t it? Before committing to the optimism around AI though it is worth considering what it does to own human nature.

Marx argued that it was through labour that the self manifests. That is, human essence itself is labour. Of course, not all labour is good. For example, under capitalism the worker is set to do tedious, repetitive tasks which removes the creative aspect of the work. When this happens, the worker is removed from his own human nature and he becomes alienated. Alienation in Marx theory takes four forms, alienation from the product of labour; alienation from the activity of labour; alienation from one’s own humanity; and alienation from others [1]. It is the alienation from one’s own humanity this text will look into.

We have arrived at a point in human history where we are standing at the edge between organic consciousness and technological consciousness. We have developed artificial intelligence. And artificial intelligence is not only changing the way we live and the way we view nature, it is changing our very own human nature – the question is, is it changing it for the better, or for the worse? In Artificial Intelligence, Alienation and Ontological Problems of Other Minds: A Critical Investigation into the Future of Man and Machines [2], Wogu and his colleagues argue that one of the main dangers of artificial intelligence is alienation. Their question is, as artificial intelligence can overtake more and more human tasks – tasks which requires intelligence and creativity – how does man keep his extensional role relevant?

“Never before have we felt so helpless in the face of forces we ourselves have created” [1] writes Judy Cox about technology in the context of alienation. Artificial intelligence is able to work both faster and better than humans in a lot of fields, therefore it seems inevitable that humans are either forced to compete with AI or to be faced with unemployment. Of course, there will always be fields where humans cannot be replaced, such as care takers, politicians, artists – but for those who can be replaced, which according to a 2013 study, concerns 47% of all Americans [2], it seems like a lost race. And under capitalism being unemployed turns you into the other – you become a burden for the workers, and you stand outside society.

As for those who get to keep their jobs, it seems as if alienation will go further with the presence of algorithms in the workplace. Workers will no longer get commands from other humans, but from machines who´s only goal is to run efficient production, and therefore consequently feel even more removed from what they create – as the human aspect of their work is taken away from them.

“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” reads Marx thesis 11 [3]. Maybe the time has come, as Zizek once suggested [4], to take a step back and learn to evaluate the world again. Where are we, where are we going and where do we want to go? When asking these questions, we are not only taking our own humanity seriously we are also reminding ourselves that there cannot be development without ideological discussion. Whether workers can be replaced with machines with the use of artificial intelligence, that is a scientific question for those who design algorithms (and the answer is: yes) – but whether people actually should be replaced by algorithms, or whether AI will be used to give humans more free time? That is an ideological question. It is class politics; it is socialist philosophy; it is capitalist interests; it is labour unions, it is the dream of Fully Automated Luxury Communism [5].

The presence of artificial intelligence raises questions of humans´ mere existence and our purpose. In an increasingly technological world it is more important than ever to stop and reflect on what makes us humans, and what aspects of humanity we want to preserve. Technological development is not wicked, but it is not necessarily positive. Asking questions about what technology can do and what we want it to do, and taking those questions seriously, is the only way we can will know whether artificial intelligence is leading us towards better times, or interesting times.


[1]  Cox, Judy. 1998. "An introduction to Marx´s theory of alienation." International socialism, quarterly journal of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain).

[2] Wogu, I.A.P., F. E. Olu-Owolabi, Assibong P. A, B. C. Agoha, M. Sholarin, A. Elegbeleye, D. Igbokwe, and H. A. Apeh. 2017. Artificial Intelligence, Alienation and Ontological Problems of Other Minds: A Critical Investigation into the Future of Man and Machines. Abuja: 2017 International Conference on Computing Networking and Informatics (ICCNI).

[3] Marx, Karl. 1845. Theses On Feuerbach.

[4] Zizek, Slavoj. 1997. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso.

[5]Bastani, Aaron. 2019. “Fully Automated Luxury Communism - A Manifesto”. London: Verso.


Av Av Tiril Flatebø (Honours-programmet, studieretning filosofi).
Publisert 9. mars 2020 13:33 - Sist endret 9. mars 2020 13:35