The AI Is You

A reaction to Venkat Rao's essay "Text Is All You Need"

Venkat Rao's essay on AI chatbots and personhood — "Text Is All You Need" — is deeply thought-provoking.

You should go read it.

The essay hints at a metaphysical thought experiment that may well provide everything you need to know about the nature of humanity and humankind's place in the universe.


What does that mean?

In brief: the AI is you.

I mean this not simply because I / you / we have furnished the internet with oceans of text — exabytes of data containing our thoughts, opinions, reactions, searches, etc. — that are being used to train large language models. [1]

But rather because the AI is analogous to humanity. 

We are an abstraction of it.

Consider two passages from Rao's essay.


This has been the most surprising insight for me: apparently text is all you need to create personhood. … For personhood, you just need a big pile of text digested by some statistics and matric multiplications … Given one initial person, you can algorithmically produce as many persons you like …

Venkatesh Rao, "Text is All You Need"

Let's juxtapose this with two quotes — one from the anthropologist Wade Davis and one from the Upanishads (trans. Patrick Olivelle, Oxford World's Classics edition).

The most remote society on earth contains within its people fully 85 percent of our total genetic diversity. Were the rest of humanity to be swept away by plague or war, the Waorani or the Barasana, the Rendille or the Tuareg would have within their blood the genetic endowment of all of humanity. Like a sacred repository of spirit and mind, any one of these cultures, any one of the 7,000 could provide the seeds from which humanity in all diversity might be reborn.

Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

You see, Maitreyī — it is one's self (ātman) which one should see and hear, and on which one should reflect and concentrate. For by seeing and hearing one's self, and by reflecting and concentrating on one's self, one gains the knowledge of this whole world.

Brhadāranyaka Upanishad (2.4.5)

Onto the second passage from Rao:

Perhaps it bothers you, but I at least, am not at all perturbed by the thought that I'm at least in part just a torrent of statistical inferences in some massively parallel matrix-multiplication machinery.

Venkatesh Rao, "Text is All You Need"

Let's juxtapose this with another passage from the Upanishads.

Now, take these rivers, son. The easterly ones flow towards the east, and the westerly ones flow towards the west. From the ocean, they merge into the very ocean; they become just the ocean. In that state they are not aware that: 'I am that river', and 'I am this river'. In exactly the same way, son, when all these creatures reach the existent, they are not aware that: 'we are reaching the existent'. No matter what they are in this world — whether it is a tiger, a lion, a wolf, a boar, a worm, a moth, a gnat, or a mosquito — they all merge into that. The finest essence here — that constitutes the self of this whole world; that is the truth; that is the self (ātman). And that's how you are, Śvetaketu.

Chāndogya Upanishad (6.10.1)

Just as the text in one culture's DNA is sufficient to reconstitute all of humanity, so too can an enlightened individual — by truly knowing oneself — come to know and understand all persons (and more).

To know one is to know all. It's all the same string. We're all feeding the same ocean of consciousness.

Rao closes his essay with a discussion on the crisis of post-personhood humans:

I think I now see why it’s apparently a traumatic moment for at least some humans. The advent of chatbots that can perform personhood that at least some people can’t not relate to in I-you ways, coupled with the recognition that text is all it takes to produce such personhood, forces a hard decision.

  • Either you continue to see personhood as precious and ineffable and promote chatbots to full personhood.

  • Or you decide personhood — seeing and being seen — is a banal physical process and you are not that special for being able to produce, perform, and experience it.

And both these options are apparently extremely traumatic prospects. Either piles of mechanically digested text are spiritually special, or you are not. Either there is a sudden and alarming increase in your social universe, or a sudden sharp devaluation of mutualism as a component of identity.

Venkatesh Rao, "Text is All You Need"

I would suggest there's a third way.

You are simultaneously a speck of nothingness and the most important thing in the world.

The sane path forward is the one that ancient wisdom traditions have been preaching for millennia: the death of the ego.

[1] I'm leaving aside many questions that arise from optimizing Sydney / ChatGPT for English, such as how English-speaking text providers interpret the world. See, for instance, "We aren't the world."