Se hace camino al andar: AI and the future of humanity

We Make the Road by Walking was the book title that Myles Horton and Paulo Freire adapted from a proverb by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado.

Daring to gloss a rich and multifaceted book with in a few words, I’d say that the path to social justice is not at all clear. Nevertheless, we must act, and that act will light the way,

Horton and Freire lived, as well as articulated, that insight, a version of learning by doing. It applies in many domains, but seems especially relevant to discussions about the new AI and its implications for ethical life.

I’d like to suggest three heuristics applicable to any new technology, but none more so than the new AI:

  • The path isn’t there until we make it.
  • Paradoxically, it’s already there.
  • We need to engage.


Much of the discourse around the new AI adopts a deterministic stance:

We’re confronted, against our desires, will, or knowledge with a new device. It acts independently of us and even the expects who built it. All we can do is watch as it upends medical care, environmental protection, racial justice, privacy, education, military preparedness, intellectual property, and democratic life, just for starters.

This is a discourse of inevitability. It portends a world that we don’t understand and can’t control. And, most of the scenarios are catastrophic. The fact that it might make shopping easier doesn’t count for much when the world’s about to end.

But is that future inevitable? Should we hunker down, or as many do, imagine possibilities more benign, even glorious?

Making the path: An Oppenheimer moment?

Robert Oppenheimer was the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the home of the Manhattan Project. He’s seen as the “father” of the atomic bomb. But he’s equally famous for his realization of the potential disaster his project had wrought. He famously quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Two years after the Trinity explosion, he said “the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

Are we facing a new Oppenheimer moment? Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin see that and call for action to address the “AI dilemma.” Some things in their video are already dated; it was made 11 days ago.

Regardless of whether we adopt the stance of Cassandra or that of Pollyanna, we will follow some path. But when we take one of the extremes, we’ll find that our path is defined by some corporation’s idea of how to maximize their profit or some government’s idea of how to control the populace,’

Horton and Freire would tell us that we need to engage in making that path ourselves.

It’s always-already there

Always-already is a widely used term in philosophy (Heidegger, Derrida, Althusser, etc.). Generally it means that the features of a phenomenon seem to precede any perception of it; they’re “always already” present. It’s related to the idea in hermeneutics that there’s no understanding free of presuppositions, or bias.

When we come to the impact of new technologies, such as the new AI, this always-already sense is very evident. For all the novelty of the technology and its impact, none of the disaster scenarios is entirely new.

For example, many people rightly worry about how AI chat programs based on large language models can be used to promote disinformation, including malicious attacks on individuals or groups, promotion of fascist ideologies, or incitement to war.

But disinformation has been a problem since the beginning of language, was exacerbated by writing and then the printing press, and already seems off the rails in the age of the web and social media. Could AI chat programs make that worse? Probably yes. But we always-already know much of what that could look like and much of what we could do about it, even as we often fail to act.

We could say similar things about employment, public health, democracy governance, and other arenas that the new AI may affect. We don’t know what will happen; but we can be sure that what does happen will be a product of both the technology per se and the way we as humans have responded in the past and present.

What, for example, is our response to disinformation already? Do we expand public radio and TV? Provide tools for citizens to examine claims that are made? Teach critical thinking? Promote civic discourse? Emphasize public education at all levels? Fund research?

Or, do we ban books, starve libraries and schools, treat rants of extremists as “news events”?

Characteristics of new technologies will make a difference, but less than our response to them.


Writing about an educational innovation, Quill, Andee Rubin and I said:

When an innovation that calls for significant changes in teacher practices meets an established classroom system, “something has to give.” Often, what gives is that the innovation is simply not used. Rarely is an innovation adopted in exactly the way the developers intended… the process of re-creation of the innovation is not only unavoidable, but a vital part of the process…. [The users’] role in the innovation process is as innovators, not as recipients of completed products.

Electronic Quills, p, 293

The re-creation process clearly applies to general prescriptions, such as “plan ahead.” But it also applies to the most solid, apparently immutable technologies.

For example, over the last century and a quarter automobiles have changed the world. We now have parking lots, suburbs, traffic laws and traffic deaths, carbon emissions, changes in sexual and family relations, and drive-in movies. But none of these were inevitable consequences of a four-wheeled vehicle with an internal combustion engine.

We could for example, value human life more and systematically restrict vehicle speed. Or, we could ban cars from urban areas, as some cities, especially in Europe, are beginning to do. We could have done many such things in the past and still could. Some would be good; some bad; some inconsequential.

The point is that how we engage is what matters in the end, not just the technology per se, if such a concept is even viable,

For the first Earth Day, in 1970, Walt Kelly made a poster pointing the finger at all of us, not just evil polluters or a few thoughtless individuals. He declared: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

It’s useful to apply a critical view to new AI technologies. We should ask how they work and what their potential might be. But ultimately, we need to look at ourselves.

  • If we’re concerned about job loss from AI chatbots, then we ought to ask how we think of securing work with dignity for all, whether AI chat bots exist or not.
  • If we’re concerned about robots controlled by opaque, unregulated software, then we ought to ask questions about the control and use of any robots, even those controlled by opaque, unregulated humans.
  • If we’re frightened by the thought of nuclear war initiated by rogue AI, then we ought to work towards guaranteeing that that never happens due to rogue humans, regardless of how much they’re aided by AI.

One positive from the advent of the new AI is that people are beginning to ask questions about the camino (the path) that we’re on, questions that deserve better answers independent of the new AI. We need to realize that the path is one that we alone can make.


For Herring River Currents (Friends of Herring River)

Please come a little closer,
I’m feeble now,
and my voice is weak.

Some tell me that I smell,
And my bottom is slush and sludge.

It wasn’t always this way,
I was something once,
not mighty like the Big Muddy,
or broad like the River Sea.

But in my youth,
a time of many millennia, I might add,
I was full of life.

Swans, herons, ospreys, and ducks all cherished me,
Otters played in my waters,
And fish, oh the fish,
They swam up me to spawn.

People harvested oysters from my depths,
Ships plied my waters
and netted massive loads of fish.

Best of all, I was connected to the great ocean beyond,
twice a day washing in the beautiful salt water.

But while I was still young,
yes, many millennia,
I had a misfortune:
They choked me.

They said it was for my own good,
fewer mosquitoes,
land for houses,

But I aged very fast,
My arteries clogged,
I couldn’t cleanse myself,
My fauna and flora friends abandoned me.

They said I was sick,
and could never recover on my own.
I desperately need an operation,

It would be massive,
it would take time,
there would be side effects.

But it will bring back the river I once was,
it will restore my land, water, and spirit,
it will make me whole again.

Radoslav Tsanoff

It can take me a long time to recognize something wonderful right in front of me, even as I blame my troubles on lacking some item of little value.

One such under-appreciated gem is Radoslav Tsanoff. His Humanities 100 course opened new doors for my understanding of philosophy, but I’ve only recently come to fully appreciate that opportunity.

Tsanoff’s bio

Radoslav Tsanoff was born in Sofia, Bulgaria. Coming to the US at age 16 to study at Oberlin, he received his PhD in philosophy at Cornell. He became the first professor of philosophy at Rice in 1914 and went on to become a brilliant teacher who inspired generations of students. He was a noted authority on intellectual history and author of many excellent books.

After a five-year retirement, Radoslav returned as Professor of Humanities, before retiring for the second time in 1974. He won many awards. With his wife Corinne, he was an active supporter of music and arts in Houston. He was religious and politically liberal, but not a member of any church or political party. He died just two months after Corinne died.

I recall that Radoslav donated his time, teaching for $1 a year. He would carefully empty his satchel at Fondren Library to allow the student at the door to check that he wasn’t stealing any books. In her excellent blog on Rice history, Melissa Kean tells many fascinating stories about the Tsanoff’s.

Tsanoff at Rice University, much as I remember him when he was my professor in 1967-68

Guiding principles

Radoslav’s close colleague says this about the couple:

They know what makes life worth living…. [Their happiness] comes from their enthusiasm for things life has to offer…. their wisdom consists in their constantly drawing on the great wealth contained in the achievements of the human spirit––in science, letters, and art, in the beauty of nature, and in the deep satisfaction that comes with working with other people toward common goals….

They throw themselves resolutely and devotedly into these boundless realms of value, try to assimilate, absorb, and enjoy them, and then do all they can to make these values patent and accessible to others…. The result is that magic we sense when we were in their presence.

Konnie Kolenda, speaking at an event honoring Radoslav and Corinne Stephenson Tsanoff, 1973; document recovered by Melissa Kean

Revisiting The Great Philosophers

Radoslav’s own The Great Philosophers was the text for Humanities 100. It’s scholarly, yet very readable, a bridge between popular discussions of philosophy as one might find in a good magazine and detailed, technical analyses found in a philosophy journal.

Recently, I’ve been having weekly discussions with an 88 year old friend. He’s a former shop teacher, who never took a philosophy course. We’ve read various short selections, including blog posts, entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and other sources. But we’ve settled on The Great Philosophers, as a book offering plenty of substance in an accessible form.

Re-reading that book has renewed my appreciation of Radoslav Tsanoff. His discussions of various issues are enlightening still, 70 years after the book was written and 55 years after I first read it. Among other things, he has interesting commentary on Epicurus and Spinoza, whose stars have risen anew since 1953. His capsule summary of pragmatism, especially of James and Dewey seems more prescient than that found in similar books.

Dreamers and doers

In an essay for Humanities 100, I included a New Yorker cartoon. I can’t find a copy of that essay, or of the cartoon, but I recall it showing two bums slouching in an alleyway. One says, “There are the dreamers and there are the doers. I’m a dreamer.”

Radoslav said that it was the only illustrated student essay that he ever received. I’m not sure, but I think that was a compliment. I know that he illustrated his own lectures with verbal images of works of art and architecture, cityscapes, and scenes from nature.

He also reminded me that one can’t always be just a dreamer; that life means engagement with ideas, arts, nature, and community.

His own life exemplified both dreaming and doing. Perhaps that’s why the last chapter emphasized philosophical pragmatism.

It’s worth quoting from the final paragraph, written 70 years ago. Many people might assume he’s talking about our own age:

Ours is a transitional age, and unsettled in its thinking, and in its social structure, facing exceedingly grave perils, yet having the possibility of unprecedentedly rich fruition…. Philosophy disposes only of its routine tasks. Its major inquiries may become more enlightened, but they cannot be terminated. This is not a skeptical reflection. It signifies, not that philosophical thought is futile, but that it is inexhaustible.

p. 573

Whale Walk

Center for Coastal Studies

The first North Atlantic right whale mother and calf pair has arrived in Cape Cod Bay. The Right Whale Ecology Program team from the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) sighted the pair on March 18––Porcia, a 21-year-old right whale, and her newborn calf. They were first seen in late December off the coast of Georgia.

Yesterday, Susan and I were fortunate go on a Whale Walk sponsored by the Center. It turned out to not much of a walk because whales came close to shore next to the pavilion where we were supposed to start. They were relatively easy to see as they fed at the surface, so we had a sort of stationary walk.

We learned a useful tip from Jesse Mechling who led the group: If you see a large black rock moving across the water, it’s probably a right whale. There’s no evidence for black rocks off Cape Cod moving in that way.

Jesse showing baleen that right whales use to capture their principal food source, copepods

The North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered. There are fewer than 340 individuals left and only 80 breeding females. The principal factors in their decline are shipping and entanglement from fishing gear. They’re called “urban whales” because they’re trying to survive off the shore of dense human populations with some of the most active shipping and fishing in the world.

They’re also affected by global warming, which results in warming of the oceans, shifts in the populations of copepods, alterations of the feeding patterns of the whales, coming into the way of new harms, etc. These issues are discussed at our annual Wellfleet harbor conference.

Cape Cod Bay from the Herring Cove pavilion in Provincetown

I have very mixed feelings right now. On the one hand I feel incredibly fortunate to benefit from organizations such as the CCS and their public engagement programs. I love being able to go a short distance to see relatively unpolluted beaches and magnificent creatures such as the right whales, directly from shore.

But on the other hand, I feel shame knowing that my generation is responsible for the destruction of these whales and other wildlife, and the habitats that they need to survive.

Repairing my lab reports

After cancer and chemo, I feel surprisingly healthy. The main problem is that my blood lab numbers are dismal.

At first I considered looking for a new lab service that could produce the numbers I wanted, but I’ve now come up with a better solution: An AI chat program can do the trick.

I asked ChatGPT to produce a report for a healthy male my age. And did it come through! The numbers are much more to my liking.

You can see the report below. The bottom line is that this way of getting a lab report is easier, faster, and cheaper. It doesn’t require being poked with a syringe needle. Best of all I can customize the results.

What can possibly go wrong?


The Embrace and the 1965 Freedom Plaza by artist Hank Willis Thomas and MASS Design Group on the Boston Common

The Embrace is a bronze figural abstraction based on a photo of an embrace between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The 20-foot-tall, 25-foot-wide artwork differs from the singular, heroic form of many memorials to Dr. King and others, instead emphasizing the power of collective action, the role of women as leaders, and the forging of new bonds of solidarity out of mutual empathy and vulnerability. The Embrace is an unprecedented attempt to give shape and prominence to Dr. King’s conception of agape love. It is also intended to reflect Coretta Scott King’s faith in the power of art, and her long life of struggle against militarism, poverty, discrimination, racism, and sexism.

City of Boston

One compensation for the many trips to Boston for cancer treatment has been the opportunity to visit people and places we might otherwise have not seen. On the last trip we had a pleasant walk through the Boston Common and Public Garden, highlighted by The Embrace.

It’s a moving sculpture, both in the sense of being emotionally significant and in the sense of conveying a feeling of life in motion. It’s a testament to the King Family, the Civil Rights movement, and what Boston hopes to become.

I’ve felt an embrace from the people around me during this cancer journey, especially from Susan, who’s had a harder time of it than I have. (I’ve slept through much of it.)

She said in one message to friends and family:

He’s grateful for all your concern and messages. He can’t easily respond to your messages, but we’d love to hear from you.

That was very true. I’ve felt support from everyone.

And of course, I can’t say enough about the many health providers at Dana-Farber, Outer Cape Health Services, Cape Cod Hospital, and more. In an era when public health is deteriorating rapidly, I’ve been fortunate to receive the best care in the world.

[This article is cross-posted on my semi-private cancer blog, Surviving Lymphoma. Login with your own WordPress account to request access, or write to me for a login and password.]

W. S. Camp

I’ve just come across some memorabilia from my great-grandfather, William Sterling Camp.

I never met him and don’t know much about him, except that he was born in Walnut Grove, Illinois in the middle of the Civil War and died in San Antonio in the middle of World War II.

One item is a book of poetry. He modestly presents it thusly,

Take this bouquet of vagrant weeds,
A plenitude of naught,
Grown from the zephyr-carried seeds
Of idleness of thought;
Pray ponder well the printed page,
Then say if the relator
Should not in haste seek to engage
A mental conservator.

Picardy countryside

There are no dates on the poems, but I can guess the years from the content. The poems inadvertently tell the story and prejudices of his times. They also talk of death. The most charming ones, such as “A Luscious Bit of Erin,” speak of lifelong love.

One may have been inspired by the popular song, “Roses of Picardy.” That song reflected the bitter fighting in Picardy during World War I, but expressed it as a melancholy love ballad (“Roses are shining in Picardy / In the hush of the silver dew / Roses are flow’ring in Picardy / But there’s never a rose like you!”).

In Bill Camp’s version, we have

Picardy Roses

When fair Picardy fields are free
From with’ring blight of war’s debris,
O’er clefted stones that fashioned hedge
For winding lanes ere Prussian wedge
Was driven deep in Freedom’s heart
And rapine came, a German art,
Will clamber roses as before
Fair Picardy was rent by war –
But ev’rywhere that Virtue bled
Picardy roses will bloom red.

I not only never met Bill Camp; I never heard (or remember) any stories about him. Looking back it amazes me how oblivious I must have been to the lives of those around me. My grandmother, for example. She was his daughter. I wish now that I had asked her more about him and his wife, Jennie.


I’m not sure what I was doing in 2009 when Logicomix came out. I missed its arrival then.

Perhaps that’s a good thing; it probably means more to me now. Fate saved me from reading it before I was ready.

The Novel

Logicomix is a graphic novel by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, with art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna.

On first look, it appears similar to the For Beginners series of graphic documentary comic books, which introduces topics such as Nietzsche, Marx, capitalism, psychiatry, and Foucault.

But Logicomix is better done, with a more compelling story, a cleverer conceit about self reference, topped off by deluxe printing and stunning, full color images. In its own way it belongs among classics such as Maus and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

The Quest

Logicomix recounts the spiritual quest of Bertrand Russell for secure logical foundations for mathematics and philosophy. His quest crosses paths with Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, Alfred Whitehead, Kurt Gödel, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Readers looking for a straightforward introduction to the mathematics may be disappointed and there won’t be any surprises for the philosopher or mathematician. But the novel does an excellent job of conveying why Russell took on this quest. It also shows, with some literary license, the character of the people in his world, their passions, and the political tensions of the time.

In a self-referential way, the writers and artists become characters in the novel. They debate the purpose of the book, with Christos the computer scientist arguing for fuller explanation of the mathematics and for more on how the early work in formal logic set the stage for Turing, Von Neumann, and the programmable computer revolution.

Apostolos describes Russell’s foundational quest as a “spiritual tragedy.” He denies that it’s meant to be an introduction to Russell’s mathematics (even though it succeeds at that). Emphasizing that the story is “100% character,” he argues that the actions and ideas derive from that. Christos asks

Russell with his new student, Wittgenstein, discussing reactions to Principia Mathematica

you mean, if they weren’t neurotic, or whatever, they wouldn’t have the necessary passion and persistence to create logic? … Or the ideas themselves were inspired by neurosis?

In an interaction with Alfred Whitehead’s son, Eric, Russell admits that Principia Mathematica used 362 pages to show that “1+1=2.” He goes on to say that this was the price for “absolute certainty.” Apostolos tells Christos that “less tortured characters would not have found this price worth paying!”

There is no absolute certainty at the end of Russell’s quest. There were multiple blows, among them, his own discovery of paradoxes in set theory, Gödel’s proof that any consistent axiomatic system for arithmetic must of necessity be incomplete, and Wittgenstein’s argument that logic is vacuous and cannot tell us anything about reality.

Impact on Russell

This impasse deterred Russell from foundational work and led to his many contributions to education, politics, and ethics.

The frame story within the novel has Russell relating his life experiences, including his certainty of opposition to the first World War. But in dialogue with pacifists before the second World War, and referring to Leibniz, he says, “I, too, dreamed this man’s dream: To find the perfect logical method for solving all problems, from logic, all the way up to Human Life!” He concedes that logic, and more broadly, reason, is not enough:

Orestes in Delphi

take my story as a cautionary tale, a narrative argument against ready-made solutions. It tells you that applying formulas is not good enough – not, that is, when you’re faced with really hard problems!

The answer is in the story. Russell’s life as presented here is tragic, with losses including unresolved quests and failed marriages. He finds wisdom through these travails, but not through the means he had imagined.


The Finale of Logicomix is another story, a performance of Aeschylus’s Oresteia: Orestes kills his mother, Clytemnestra, who had killed her husband, Agamemnon, who had killed his daughter, Iphigenia, etc. More had occurred earlier to make all of this inevitable.

Athena offers no easy solution for the Athenians. Instead she chooses forgiveness:

Furies, respect persuasion and the sacred power of reason, embodied in justice! Stay in my city! Do good, and in return, receive good!

The creators of Logicomix are in the audience.

Athena’s trick is to give the other half a voice. She says that “to achieve wisdom… you must also allow for a lot that’s usually left out as un-wise.” In other words, there are times when it’s best to embrace contradictions, something Russell spent his early years fighting against.

With “modern” people having absolute certainty that they are right, finding ever more effective ways to kill, and refusing even to listen to one another, the story of Russell’s quest and the tragedy of Oresteia could never be more relevant.