What would Marx make of ChatGPT?

February 17, 2023
Capitalist hype about artificial intelligence downplays human agency in its development. Photo: Tara Winstead/Pexels

Karl Marx noted in his Speech at the Anniversary of the People's Paper (1856) that “all our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force”.

This has never been truer than in our era, saturated with capitalist hype around technology and “artificial intelligence”. Indeed, the term artificial intelligence itself is a kind of hype as it is more correctly called “artificial communication”, to borrow sociologist Elena Esposito’s phrase.

As ChatGPT has developed, so too has detection software technology. Paradoxically, the detection software ChatGPTZero uses the tagline “Humans deserve the truth”.

Yet this poses humanity and machine against one another, as though machines were inherently deceptive and thereby not the result of human intention and effort.

As Marx explained poignantly in his unfinished Grundrisse (1857–58), machines “are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified.” Indeed, ChatGPT reorganises and aggregates information, placing it within forms of presentation that humans have developed.

Human agency is undermined daily amid looming climate catastrophe and advances with automation, while we are encouraged to think of technological entities as an alien force threatening us. One need only think of the offerings from science fiction.

This sense of being controlled by machines is not without a dialectical reality as our social relations gain a level of autonomy. We are indeed managed through nudges and push notifications and calendar reminders.

Yet these all emanate from a human and capitalist impulse, namely the profit motive. Indeed, it is easy to forget this as the digital conjures the illusion of an immaterial realm, while it in fact subsists on material resources.

Rather than seeing ChatGPT as a challenge to humanity, it is ultimately the product of human beings, reflecting and refracting current social relations.

In such a context, the potential of technologies such as ChatGPT is distorted — used for branding, media releases and other timesaving and cost-cutting measures.

As Marx remarked in The German Ideology (1846): “Private property alienates the individuality not only of people but also of things. Land has nothing to do with rent of land, the machine has nothing to do with profit.”

This is not to deny the agential quality of technology, that technology does indeed shape and condition us, becoming itself a potentially revolutionary force. Nature is a web of relations and human nature is no different, developing alongside forms of technical and social development.

Human beings have a history because they develop their surrounds and thereby develop alongside their surrounds. Nature is not static, but relational for Marx — its essence is a type of entanglement of different, often opposing forces and tendencies, much like human society and the human individual.

ChatGPT exists within this entanglement. In fact, it readily admits this fact.

I have been conducting a number of experiments with ChatGPT, including asking it to explain Marx’s thought on freedom and equality. Let’s just say it didn’t pass the test.

Nevertheless, it did noticeably better when I asked the software to write a Marxist analysis of itself. Here is the result:

“As an AI language model developed by OpenAI, ChatGPT represents a clear example of the contradictions inherent in capitalist production. While on one hand, ChatGPT represents a remarkable technological achievement and a demonstration of the tremendous creative potential of human labor, on the other hand it also embodies the exploitation and domination of the global working class.

“The development of ChatGPT was made possible through the exploitation of vast amounts of data and computational resources, all generated by the unpaid labor of internet users and the low-wage labor of data annotators. This data was then used to train the model, allowing it to generate text based on patterns it detected in the input data.

“This process highlights the fundamental contradiction of capitalist production, in which the wealth generated by the exploitation of labor is used to develop new technologies that allow for even greater exploitation and domination of the working class. The development of AI systems like ChatGPT is driven not by a desire to improve the lives of ordinary people, but by the profit motive of the capitalists who control the means of production.

“Furthermore, the use of AI systems like ChatGPT reinforces existing power relations in society. By automating certain forms of communication and decision-making, AI systems serve to further centralize power in the hands of a small elite and displace human workers from their jobs, exacerbating inequality and oppression.

“In conclusion, a Marxist critique of ChatGPT reveals it as a product of the contradictions and exploitation inherent in capitalist production. While it represents a remarkable technological achievement, it also embodies the domination of the global working class and reinforces existing power relations in society.”

It turns out that ChatGPT makes a good case against its use as a capitalist tool. ChatGPT could indeed be enormously useful, but its progressive potential is hampered. As such, it does indeed accentuate the tensions in capitalist society.

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