A virtual Jacques Lacan discusses about Artificial Intelligence

“In other words, the man who is born into existence deals first with language;
this is a given. He is even caught in it before his birth.”
(J. Lacan)


A virtual discussion with Jacques Lacan is a very hard task, above all when the main topic is Artificial Intelligence, a discipline that maybe he heard about but still too far from the world where he lived in. However, I believe that many concepts belonging to his theory are fundamental for any discipline that has to study the huge variety of human behaviors. Of course, this is a personal (and limited) reinterpretation that can make may psychoanalysts and philosophers smile, but I do believe in freedom of expression and all the constructive comments are welcome. But let’s begin our virtual discussion!

PS: Someone hasn’t understood that this is a dialog where I wrote all utterances (believe it or not) and asked me if I had trained a RNN. Well, no. This isn’t Artificial Intelligence. It’s about Artificial Intelligence.


G.B. – I’d like to start this discussion with a very hot topic. Are you afraid of Artificial Intelligence?

J.L. – I’m afraid of human desires when they’re interpreted as normal daily messages.

G.B. – Can you explain this concept with further details?

J.L. – A desire is a strange thing. Very strange, to be honest. It can be simple, but at the same time, it can hide something we cannot decode. I’m really afraid of all powerful people because they can start thinking that they deserve a special jouissance (in English, think about terms like pleasure, enjoyment, possession).

G.B. – What’s so strange about it?

J.L. – The strange thing is something that Marx understood perfectly and that I’ve called plus-jouissance. The political power is a particular territory where a person can think to re-find his or her mother’s breast. In other words, I’m afraid when a person thinks that it’s possible to kill, impose absurd laws and get richer and richer only because the majority of other people stay on the other side.

G.B – Is it enough to be afraid of Artificial Intelligence?

J.L. – It’s enough to be afraid of many things, but we need also to trust human beings. Artificial Intelligence is becoming another object where the plus-jouissance can focus its attention. Sincerely I don’t like Science-Fiction and I don’t think about AI like another nuclear power. Maybe it’s only a bluff, hype to feed some marketing manager, but it seems that Artificial Intelligence had a weird behavior. It’s much less pragmatic than a hydrogen bomb, but it’s much more flexible.

G.B – Maybe I’m beginning to understand. When you say: flexible, do you mean that it has more degrees of freedom?

J.L. – Degrees of freedom as attraction points.

G.B – A crazy politician could start a war even without knowing what AI really is, am I correct?

J.L. – He knows perfectly what AI is. AI is a toy that is asking to become a womb for new plus-jouissance.

G.B – Well, but let’s talk about the results. I’d like to be straight again: are you a reductionist?

J.L. – Freud was a reductionist, but he didn’t succeed in finding all the evidence. I do believe that human beings are animals, but quite different from dogs and monkeys. Look at this diagram:

We can suppose that until a certain instant, all animals were similar and they developed their intelligent abilities according to the structure of their brain. However, there was an instant when human beings started developing the most important concept of the whole history: language. It created a singularity, altering the smoothness of the evolution line.

G.B – Why is language so important?

J.L. – It’s dramatically important because it broke the original relationship with the jouissance. Human beings began describing and representing the world using their language. This allowed solving many problems, asking more and more questions and finding more and more answers, but… They had to pay a price. If they were somehow complete before the singularity (this isn’t a scientific assumption), after that moment, they found themselves with a missing part.

G.B – Which part?

J.L. – Impossible to say. The missing part is exactly what constantly escapes the signification process.

G.B – Well, but how can this explain the power of Artificial Intelligence?

J.L. – Probably it doesn’t, but, on my opinion, the best arena for AI is not a computational activity. It’s the language. Do you know the difference between moi and je?

G.B Moi is the subject who talks, while je is the subject who desires. Correct?

J.L. – More or less. Until a certain point, it’s easy to reduce some brain process to the functions of a moi. A well-developed, advanced chatbot could be considered as a limited human being who always lived inside a small universe.

G.B – It’s not very hard to imagine a chat with such an artificial agent.

J.L. – Yes, it’s possible. But my question is: did it (or he, she?) entered the language world like any human being?

G.B – Are you wondering if it has lost the jouissance?

J.L. – Exactly. Now I can seem mad, but can a chatbot desire? Does a chatbot je exist?

G.B – This is probably irrelevant for AI developments. Or are you asking me if there will psychoanalysts for chatbots?

J.L. – It’s irrelevant because your definition of intelligence is based on a rigid schema, mainly derived from the utility theory. Your agents must be rational and they are intelligent if they can adapt their behavior to different environmental changes so to maximize the current and future advantage.

G.B – Reinforcement learning.

J.L. – Do you really think that all human processes are governed by a reinforcement learning algorithm? Imagine two agents closed into a rectangular universe. There are enough resources to make them live for a very long time. What’s the most rational behavior?

G.B – If we don’t consider the Game Theory and we assume that both agents know exactly the same things, well, the most rational strategy is to divide the resources. To consume a unit only after the other agents has done the same.

J.L. – Do human beings act this way?

G.B – To be honest… No, they often don’t.

J.L. – And what about love? Hate? Are they actually explainable using the reinforcement learning? If the purpose is the reproduction, human beings should copulate like dogs or rabbits. Don’t you think?

G.B – Indeed this is a very delicate problem. Many researchers prefer to avoid it. Someone else says that emotions are the effect of chemical reactions. On the other side, if I drink a glass of whiskey I feel different, uninhibited. It’s impossible not to say that also the emotions are driven by chemical processes.

J.L. – Probably they are, but I don’t care. No one cares. When you fall in love with a woman, are you asking yourself which combination of neurotransmitters determined that event? I think to be more software-oriented than you! If a message appears on a monitor, it’s obvious that some electronic circuits made it happen, but this answer doesn’t satisfy you. Am I correct?

G.B – I’d like to know which software determined the initial cause.

J.L. – Exactly. Now, returning to our chatbots, I want to be more challenging (and maybe annoying): do they have a conscience?

G.B – I don’t know.

J.L. – Do they have a subconscious?

G.B – Why should they have one?

J.L. – Oh my God! Because you’re talking about artificial intelligence comparing your agents to human beings! Maybe it’d be easier if you took a rat as a benchmark!

G.B – Rats are an excellent benchmark to study the reinforcement learning. Have you ever heard about rats in a maze?

J.L. – Well, this is something I can accept. But you’re lowering your aim! I read all the news about Facebook and its chatbots that invented a language.

G.B – Hype. They were simply unable to communicate in English. But too many people thought to be in front of a Terminator scenario.

J.L. – That’s why someone can be afraid of AI! You are confirming what I said at the beginning of this dialogue. A nuclear bomb explodes and kills a million people. Stop. Everything is clear. If you’re the leader of a big nation, you could be interested in nuclear weapons because they are “useful” in some situations. But, at the same time, it’s easier to oppose such a decision. With AI, the situation is completely different, because sometimes there’s a lack of scientificity.

G.B – You complained about this also for the psychoanalysis. For this reason, you introduced the matheme notation.

J.L. – The beauty of mathematics is its objectivity and I hope that also the most important philosophical concepts regarding AI will be one day formalized.

G.B – I think it’s easier to formalize an algorithm.

J.L. – Of course it is. But an algorithm for the subconscious must be interpreted in a completely different way and sometimes it can also be impossible! That’s why I keep on saying that the best arena for artificial intelligence is a linguistic world. I want to finish with a quote from one my seminars: “Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it“. I’m still waiting for a rational artificial agent which struggles to give something it doesn’t have to another agent which refuses it! Can reinforcement learning explain it?

G.B – Just silence

See also:

Artificial Intelligence is a matter of Language – Giuseppe Bonaccorso

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” (L. Wittgenstein) When Jacques Lacan proposed his psychoanalytical theory based on the influence of language on human beings, many auditors remained initially astonished. Is language an actual limitation? In the popular culture, it isn’t. It cannot be!