Tethix Storytime: Fire stories and AI golems

Welcome to Tethix Storytime. A series in which we explore tech ethics with storytelling.

In tonight’s story, we follow the mythopoetic threads from the initial theft of fire to gen AI golems.

Video thumbnail showing a campfire and the storyteller Alja
You can also listen to this story on YouTube.

It is not known how humans came into possession of fire, the technology that would allow us to create many others. But there seems to be a universally told story that theft and cunning had to be involved because somebody always thought it was a bad idea to share the privilege of wielding fire with all of humanity.

We never hear from the original guardians of fire and their reasons for keeping the knowledge of fire to themselves. But we tell stories of the ones who outwitted them. The tricksters take different shapes, names and settings, defined by the land from which the story is born. You were probably taught the name of Prometheus or Maui, told the stories of the Crow or the Grandmother Spider, and many others, depending on where you were born.

Either way, what is known is that humans came to possess the knowledge of fire and started using it to keep warm, cook food, and keep away the sharp teeth and claws lurking in the shadows. And to set fire to villages and enemies we blamed for our woes. Perhaps that is why fire was initially kept out of our reach, as we now keep fire out of reach of children.

We also used fire to make tools that made us feel in control of the land and each other. We practiced fire magic to cleanse and destroy, worshiped fire gods, but eventually, our mastery of fire and technology convinced us that we are god-like enough and deserve the right to create and control life ourselves. We started telling stories of djinns that grant three wishes, of golems that do our bidding through incantations, of Kratts that help with the drudgery of household tasks, of the sorcerer’s apprentice who couldn’t be bothered to mop the floors and enchanted a broom.

Yet all these stories of magical helpers are told as cautionary tales. The last wish inevitably goes wrong, the golem follows instructions too literally, the idle Kratt turns on its owner, the apprentice realizes he hasn’t yet learned the magic to make the multiplying brooms stop fetching water. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, our attempts at fire mastery often end up in disaster when we get caught up in the excitement and forget about its destructive powers.

We are told these cautionary tales, yet as wielders of modern fires, we fail to notice the connection to the digital fires we are now playing with. We convince ourselves that our digital fires cannot hurt us because they are ones and zeros, unbiased and contained in code. But our code is not unlike the incantations fed to the golems, with unintended consequences multiplying as our own biases are learned by machines and our code interpreted literally, scaled fast over unsuspecting anonymized victims.

And we are now watching in awe as fire apprentices of Silicon Valley build and unleash AI golems that appear almost human-like, previous AI winters now forgotten. The fire apprentices tell us stories of how AI golems will improve our lives, yet also spread cautionary tales of how the AI golems might turn onto humankind to sweep the reports of existing golem damages under the rug.

And so the Ministries of Magic pat themselves on their backs as they issue orders and sign documents in which we all agree that AI golems should be used responsibly and that some golem testing might be necessary. Meanwhile, we find ourselves wandering in a dense fog of uncertainty and anxiety, with AI golems running around unchecked, putting additional pressure on our climate and thickening the fog.

We have come a long way from the initial theft of fire, yet the fires we are now playing with are no less dangerous – or powerful. What changed is that the makers of fires are no longer the ones that feel the consequences of their fires first. And that the fires we make can now quickly be scaled into wildfires that cannot be contained by borders or laws.

But what is also different is that this story does not have an ending yet. It is being written and shaped right now, with each of us deciding what part to play. What to do with the burning embers of the gen AI fire, and what to do with the AI golems that eagerly offer their help and hallucinate answers when prompted. Are you an apprentice, a sorcerer who comes back home to fix the damage, an unsuspecting victim, or a new character we can imagine together?

Let us increase our possibility space by learning from stories of the past and taking an active part in writing the stories that will determine our future.

And that, my friends, is a story for another time.

If you’d like to read more stories like this, please share the story with a friend or colleague.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you around the campfire again.

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