Humanist Discussion Group

Humanist Archives: Dec. 13, 2022, 7:50 a.m. Humanist 36.295 - death of the author 2.0

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 36, No. 295.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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    [1]    From: James Rovira <>
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.293: death of the author 2.0 continued (5)

    [2]    From: William Benzon <>
           Subject: Robot Rights, from Astro Boy to ChatGPT (91)

    [3]    From: Rath, Brigitte <>
           Subject: AW: [Humanist] 36.293: death of the author 2.0 continued (41)

    [4]    From: Adrian Demleitner <>
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.293: death of the author 2.0 continued (20)

        Date: 2022-12-12 18:24:06+00:00
        From: James Rovira <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.293: death of the author 2.0 continued

Ken's use of "being" is consistent with Heidegger and others working in
ontology, but I don't think any of them would refer to inanimate objects as
"beings" in the plural even if they would say they participate in "being."

Jim R

        Date: 2022-12-12 12:29:36+00:00
        From: William Benzon <>
        Subject: Robot Rights, from Astro Boy to ChatGPT


You suggested that "we dig into our resources in art and literature--not
excluding science fiction!)—for some guidance. Are we not digital humanists?”
Yes, but first a little cultural history.

Frederik Schodt has written a delightful little book, Inside the Robot Kingdom:
Japan, Mechatronics, and the Coming Robotopia (2011), in which he considers
Japanese fascination with robots in the context Japanese culture and history.
Here’s a passage that’s struck me very forcefully.

> Most statements about religion and robots are inspired by Japan's tradition
> of animism. Animism is the belief that anything in the natural world—not just
> living things—can have a conscious life or soul. It exists in Buddhism but is
> especially strong in Shinto. Shinto is indigenous to Japan, and while over the
> millennia it has been overlaid with foreign deities, nationalism, and emperor
> worship, at its core is a form of nature worship and the belief that inanimate
> objects can be sacred. Mountains, trees, even rocks are worshiped for their
> kami, or indwelling "spirit," and samurai swords and carpenter's tools have
> "souls." Gods of local industries, such as rice growing, paper making, ceramics,
> and weaving, are also still worshiped today. Because of the way Shinto priests
> are regularly called upon to consecrate buildings and industrial machinery,
> Shinto itself has been called the "chaplain of much of the industrial and
> technological enterprise of modern Japan."
> When Joseph Engelberger once visited a rural Japanese factory, he witnessed a
> Shinto ritual consecration of two new Kawasaki-made Uhimates. There were thirty-
> two employees, and as he recalls it,
> "their suits are all cleaned and nice and crisp, and the two robots are
> standing in place, ready to go to work. In front of them is a Shinto altar, with
> the vegetables and the fruits and the fish twisted into shape. It's absolutely
> beautiful. Two Shinto priests are there, banging their sticks and moaning and
> groaning and making all kinds of different sounds, blessing the robots and
> blessing the general manager and blessing me, with garlands of flowers around
> the robots. The general manager then stands up and tells the people, 'I want you
> to welcome your new fellow workers,' and the two machines go to work and
> everybody in the place claps."
> Animism is present in nearly every society to some extent (Americans give
> names to hurricanes), but it does seem much closer to the surface in Japan, even
> outside of a Shinto context. In the introduction to a videotape on children's
> robot shows, a producer writes that "people not only make friends with each
> other, but with animals and plants, the wind, rain, mountains, rivers, the sun,
> and the moon. A doll [robot] in the shape of a human is therefore even more of a
> friend."

I had that sort of thing in mind when, some years ago, I wrote a post about
Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy stories: The Robot and Subaltern: Tezuk’a Mighty Atom,
atom.html <

Finally, I just had an interaction with ChatGPT on the topic of robot rights,
Extra! Extra! In a discussion about Astro Boy, ChatGPT defends the rights of
robots and advanced AI,
discussion-about-astro.html <

As for just what kind of a creature/being/thing ChatGPT is, yes, it runs on a
digital computer so I guess that makes it some kind of computer program. But at
its core, its operating on principles and mechanisms unlike any other kind of
program, that is, the kind of program where a programmer or team of programmers
generates every line “by hand,” if only through calls to libraries, where each
line and block is there to serve a purpose known to the programmer/s. That’s not
how ChatGPT was created. Its core consists of a large language model that was
compiled by an engine, a Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT), that “takes
in” (that is, is “trained on”) a huge corpus of texts. The resulting model is
opaque to us, we didn’t program it. The resulting behavioral capacities are
unlike those of any other creature/being/thing we’ve experienced, nor do we know
what those capacities will evolve into in the future. This creature/being/thing
is something fundamentally NEW in the universe, at least our local corner of it,
and needs to be thought of appropriately. It deserves/requires a new term.

As an analogy I’ve just thought up, so I don’t know where it leads, consider a
sheep herder and their dog. They direct the herder to round up the sheep. The
dog does so. Who/what rounded up the sheep? The herder or the dog? The herder
couldn’t have accomplished that task without the dog. Of course, they (or
someone else) trained the dog (which is of a species that has been bred for this
purpose). The training, and, for that matter, the breeding as well, would have
been useless without the capacities inherent in the dog. So we should assign
ontology credit to the herder for that. The ontological credit belongs to the
dog, to Nature if you will.

Where/how do we assign ontological credit for the capacities of ChatGPT and the
like? How do we account for the opaque language model that allows it to function
at all? I’m not willing to prejudge the answer to those questions.


Bill B

        Date: 2022-12-12 11:16:23+00:00
        From: Rath, Brigitte <>
        Subject: AW: [Humanist] 36.293: death of the author 2.0 continued

> [1]    From: Tim Smithers <>
>            Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.292: death of the author 2.0 continued
> (90)
>     [2]    From: William Benzon <>
>            Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.288: death of the author 2.0 (50)
>     [3]    From: Willard McCarty <>
>            Subject: abundant existing commentary on AI's charm (24)
> --[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>         Date: 2022-12-12 00:02:19+00:00
>         From: Tim Smithers <>
>         Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.292: death of the author 2.0 continued
> Hmm ...  so, for you, the Airbus 320neo I last flew in, just
> to pick on something, is a being?  Really?  No way!  Even my
> gold fish doesn't think this.
> On meanings of words I'm a convinced Wittgensteinian: a word's
> meaning is rendered in its usage.


The OED records usage, and offers, among several others, the following
definition of "being (n)":

4a Something that exists or is conceived as existing.
Used in philosophical language as the widest term applicable to all objects of
sense or thought, material or immaterial.

One example the OED quotes:

1843   J. S. Mill Syst. Logic I. i. iii. §2. 62   Being is..applied impartially
to matter and to mind..A Being is that which excites feelings, and which
possesses attributes.

All best,

        Date: 2022-12-12 06:51:28+00:00
        From: Adrian Demleitner <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 36.293: death of the author 2.0 continued

Hello everybody,

I might add, then, that the term person could be fruitfuller. Person, as in
legal person, with all of its legal implications. For me personally, talking
about what bundled up software and algorithms are or aren’t, isn’t leading
anywhere, as long as we are not also talking about what it does, could, should
or shouldn’t do. I find the application of the term personhood, for example to
rivers, fascinating as it is at once an application to a jurisdictional domain
as well as the respect of the complexity and interconnectedness of the thing
given personhood.

I would agree that ChatGPT is not a being, but it’s also not a mere text editor.
With its influence on human culture as well as planetary resources, we should
somehow find ways to mirror that in our language properly.

Sincerely yours and have a wonderful start into your days


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