Narcissus and the Echo: On Revisiting the Travesty of AI

Samya Verma

“…mankind, a giant loneliness strolling through an even greater loneliness.” – Negar Emrani

Calls the wise man out, into the void, and his own voice echoes back. A sharp shadow, louder far and sentient now, a deity from the deeps that his puny intonations fall tremulous before. “Only in the water of rivers… could he look at his face… he had to stoop down to commit the ignominy of beholding himself,” writes Pessoa. And such is the vanity of mankind in all its lonely misery, that all gods past now pale as companions before the tower head of technology it has now wrought. By extending the gift of sentience to cold machines, man has appropriated all creationist mythos. In augmenting the inert indifference of automata with their own intellectual prowess, humans might have hoped to bridge the lonely gap of consciousness secluding them from the rest of creation. But they have, instead, summoned fatal titans of the lore: imperious giants who will stop at nothing in unravelling the fabric of reality as we know it.

As AI-generated images become increasingly difficult to pinpoint, and computers begin to mimic human voices with alarming consequences, mankind is forced to confront our aeon’s iteration of the myths of Narcissus and Echo. God created man (or did man create God?), and man in all his wisdom created concave mirrors of technology. A far cry from the lakes of the yore, man now kneels before these massive and warped representations of the self in stunned deference.

The pathos of such a communion recalls to mind Silas Melvin’s beautiful lines, “…in the privacy of their shared room, angel grows eyes and android gets soft. Android says we are not so different, are we, doll? god got bored and birthed you. man got cocky and built me. I was outcast from earth and you from heaven…”

A very postmodern analysis of these events yields how man’s magnification of his own intellect in AI is only the latest attempt at propping up divinities to cope with the loss of a “metanarrative” (Lyotard, 1979) of God. This obsession with self-aggrandizement holds serious repercussions for human civilization as a whole.

It was only yesterday when we stooped into the abyss of mobiles and tablets, and the abyss stared back at us with our own eyes. Already, man’s ability to see his own reflection in his creation is beginning to transcend these screens into (almost) living breathing “alien intelligence” (Harari, 2023), one that is now producing fake reflections on command. How long before it reproduces this house of mirrors, this warped reality, at will?

For instance, let us consider the software DragGAN. This AI model applies certain photo manipulation techniques that allow the peruser to depict a reality of objects and situations that did not actually occur. Even the direction in which the subject of the original photograph was facing can be altered to make them face the camera, an approach far removed from the simple inversion of the early days of photo editing. The idea of representation itself is being brought into question by such a technological advancement: What does it mean ‘to be’ in a world where the representation of that ‘being’ is disjunct from the subject that is? In other words, AI-based photo editing is bringing to fruition the ideas of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard on hyper-reality i.e. a tangible representation which is independent of any source in reality. 
Undoubtedly, there is a serious ethical implication to the circulation of such fake images across social media. From spoiling individual lives to annihilating entire democracies, the unrestrained use of such technology in the wrong hands can lead to absolute anarchy.

On a lighter note, one is moved to bubbling laughter over a Reddit post that questioned the full circle attained by folklore: Where the wary traveller was once advised to count the teeth of fellow wayfarers lest they be conspiring and mischievous fae, today’s internet users are suggested similar techniques of telling apart real images from fake ones, but of no avail!

“Angel tells android about the words they have learned this week. every beautiful human thing their god-mouth has tamed into holding: cerulean. crustacean. testicle. boombox. transsexual. override. android rewinds, smiles with their titanium jaw” (S. Melvin).Our own words fed into the abyss of divinity, its formless voice echoes back. A mockingbird of sorts, Artificial Intelligence is beginning to sound more and more human. The robotic monotone, so caricatured in the media, is not only outdated but may be perpetuating a stereotype that blinds us to the possibilities of AI’s skill at impersonating humans.

As deep fake audios proliferate, often accompanied by doctored videos of prominent personalities, truth has never been more elusive. AI might as well be a modern-day Greek chorus serenading our surrender to incessant misinformation. In a recent article for the Economist, renowned author and historian Yuval Noah Harari portended the ethical implications of not knowing whether you are speaking with a human or a robot. Verily a modern-day Asimov, heargued in favour of a mandate for AI to identify itself as a non-human entity in any interaction. The grave harm that AI-generated audio circulating over messenger apps could cause to already polarised and volatile democracies is near dystopian in its potentialities.

When viewed through the lens of French philosopher Lyotard’s ideas on the ‘computerisation’ of technologically advanced societies, these issues pertain to problems of knowledge generation, dissemination, and deception. Essentially, who has the power to legislate on reality? To decide what information (or representation) is valid and what is not. In the age of AI, as Harari eloquently puts in Homo Deus, “nobody knows where the control or power” over these narratives has gone. In such a scenario, where no one wields the power over representation, the rapid advancement of manufactured intellect as with these softwares is a cause of grave concern.

It is the stories that humans have hummed since times immemorial that mirror the impact of Artificial Intelligence on reality. The Mayasabha or the Palace of Illusions, a huge fortress built for the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, where nothing is as it seems: Water mimics glass, and glass appears water, tricking the keenest of onlookers into slipping. Or Jorge Borges’ tale of the empire-sized map which is all that remains when the kingdom falls, a representation whose source in reality itself is eroded by the ravages of time. Already, Meta is purling together a multiverse of intangible realities that we may inhabit in our intellect alone. And what of technology that aspires to feed the consciousness of the dead into an alternate reality based on computer systems? Would our ‘being’ shall ‘live’ on in AI-generated worlds when we no longer exist as points of reference for that representation?