The Specter of Machine Intelligence


Machines are coming to resemble human beings more each day. At a concrete level, this is true because human beings are using increasingly sophisticated techniques to produce machines that increasingly resemble human beings. But more abstractly, this is true in principle: machines exist in the first place because they resemble human beings.

Karl Marx, living in the world of steam engines and power looms, noticed that machines were developed to replace workers. To do so, the machines must carry out the tasks that were previously carried out by human beings. The motive is simple: machines are likely to decrease the cost of production and therefore increase profits for the people who own the machines and what the machines produce. The motive is the all-encompassing profit motive. So the resemblance between human beings and machines is understood through their overlapping capacities for labor. It is the only resemblance that matters in the eyes of capitalism.


In the market a human being is in competition not only with other human beings but also with machines. Marx says in the chapter on machines in Capital, the longest chapter of vol. 1,

The struggle between the capitalist and the wage-laborer starts with the existence of the capital-relation itself. […] But only since the introduction of machinery has the worker fought against the instrument of labor itself, capital’s material mode of existence. (554-5)

And later, more to the point, he says, “The instrument of labor, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the worker himself.” (557) The introduction of machines into production harms the worker because free labor is preferable to wage labor in the mind of the capitalist. Fundamentally, the competition exists only because the machines and human beings share a capacity for labor.


I want to discuss a specific point of resemblance between human beings and machines: intelligence. The power loom represents a moment of technological development, but a power loom cannot solve novel problems or track the random movement of objects in its environment. It is not an intelligent machine. It does not have common sense. I am concerned with a machine intelligence (MI). Many well-funded and well-educated people are working to produce one, and their techniques, priorities, and goals cover a wide range. For that reason—along with the fact that a human level MI does not currently exist—it is difficult to say what an MI would look like with any certainty or specificity. To borrow Nick Bostrom’s definition, I will mean by MI a piece of technology that possess general intelligence, meaning it possesses “common sense, and an effective ability to learn, reason, and plan to meet complex information-processing challenges across a wide range of natural and abstract domains.” (Superintelligence, 3) I will also take the MI to be something that has human level intelligence or above: an MI is an intellect that either matches or exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest. (22)

I believe the prospect of MI relates to Marxism in a number of profound ways. That isn’t a radical statement. Everything relates to Marxism in profound ways. But I wish to explore two connected issues:

  • the concepts of alienation and reification in the act of producing MI
  • the consequences an existing MI might have on the communist revolution

My idea is this: there is a practical contradiction in the attempt to arrive at a post-wage-labor world through the creation of intelligent machines.


The role of advanced technology in a future utopia (communist or not) has been a constant theme since Marx. As the field of artificial intelligence gains steam, many people see technology as a tool for liberation, while plenty others demur. Although Marx himself was initially skeptical of the technophilic socialist utopian vision, he became more interested in the role of machines later in his life. In the Grundrisse he saw that technology could develop to the point of producing enough surplus wealth that human beings would no longer need to sell their labor. In many respects he saw technological development as at the heart of the drive of capitalism and ultimately to its undoing. The bourgeoisie produces automated gravediggers.


His concept of alienation (Entäusserung) or estrangement (Entfremdung) appears mainly in the work of the 1840s and 1850s and later develops into the concepts of commodity fetishism and machine labor. The idea of alienation is broad and, in terms of MI production, quite fruitful.

Alienation is everywhere in capitalism. As Marx says in the “Notes on James Mill,” the capitalist world is a “caricature of a true community” precisely because of alienation. The machine is an object of alienation for the worker in a number of ways: workers are alienated from the act of producing machines and from other workers (a category that includes both human beings and machines, as we saw). Alienation is heightened with the increasing presence of machines. The human elements of labor dwindle away more each day. Workers produce machines and then encounter their products in alien form, as both products and competitors.

The act of producing MI, like all productive activity under capitalism, is characterized by alienation. But in early Marx we find a number of cryptic remarks about how labor involves the externalization of the worker. This is his difficult concept of reification or objectification (Verdinglichung)—a concept that is not particularly prominent in Marx, especially in his later writing, but is there nonetheless. He says in the 1844 manuscripts, “The product of labor is labor embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of labor.” The product is not simply the arrangement of parts of nature, but labor is contained in the product. He says two paragraphs later,

The worker places his life in the object; but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object. The greater his activity, therefore, the fewer objects the worker possesses. What the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater his product, the less is he himself. The externalization of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.

We can take this in a number of ways. First, in producing an object, a worker expends a certain amount of effort. The effort is directed towards the object. Hence, the object is a repository of labor that the worker cannot get back. It is permanently expended, formed into and represented by the object. Second, there is a more metaphysical reading in which labor is the objectification of some part of the essence of the worker. Labor is a form of self-actualization.

There is something intuitive about this idea, whether or not it is Marx’s. The products of our labor represent a part of ourselves. Why is it that, in certain circumstances, we want others to recognize and appreciate what we have made? This pride is stripped away under capitalism. Our labor becomes nothing more than the means for producing objects that are not our own. We are laboring to earn a wage, not to produce an object.

The second reading makes sense when talking about machines. Recall that machines exist due to their resemblance to human beings. They are made to perform a certain task that was previously performed by human beings. So, in producing a machine, there is an obvious sense in which the machine is the objectification of its human producer. In the case of MI, the product is intentionally and explicitly meant to include aspects of its designer. It is the externalization of intelligence, the capacity for generalized production itself. The MI is not only the result of alienated productive activity, but it is an objectification of the very productive activity that produced it. Or more precisely, it is the objectification of what the human producer takes their generalized productive power to be. The MI is an embodied form of the designer’s conception of their own intelligence.


But how is this special to MI? This is the critical question. All machines, intelligent or not, are the externalization of the capacity for production. But there is a difference in the scope of the capacities. The power loom is limited in what it can do: it is restricted to a specific domain and requires a human operator. An MI, by definition, overcomes these restrictions. It is the externalization not of any specific productive capacity, but of a more basic, essential feature of the worker: the capacity to produce across all relevant domains.

So we face a dilemma. Either, on the one hand, the MI is simply another product of alienated labor—a glorified power loom—in which case, there is nothing special about MI. Or on the other, the MI, in virtue of its generalized productive capacity, is the same as a human being in capitalism—another alienated laborer—in which case, again there is nothing special.

Either it is an object or a person. So how do we distinguish between human beings and machines?


The key, I believe, is in the capacity for unalienated labor. There is a distinction between carbon-based producers and silicon-based producers. They belong to the same category under capitalism because both can produce wealth for capitalists. The material substrate of the producer is not what matters. But there is also a distinction between producers that can be members of the “true community,” the proletariat that will be liberated in the revolution, and those that cannot. The power loom cannot be liberated. The human laborer can. The question, then, is where the MI belongs.   

It is tempting to say that the MI is a person. I intentionally left the question open. Based on my definitions, the MI seems to be sufficiently like a human being that we should welcome it as a comrade in the struggle. But this is far from straightforward. Unlike with human beings, the nature of the MI is the result of choices made by its designer. The choices are alienated productive activity. The MI is wholly the product of alienated labor in a non-arbitrary way. It is not an entity with a pre-existing nature that is unfortunately thrust into an economic scheme at odds with its nature. The MI is a child of capitalism: it is the objectification of the designer’s self-conception. And the conception is that of an alienated self. The MI is the alienated embodiment of the alienated self of the designer. It might still make sense to say that it is a person, but it is more difficult to see how something with that nature would also have the capacity for liberation.


We must reframe the dilemma in order to bring this point out further. On the one hand, the designer is producing yet another object in the market. They are externalizing a capacity that can be used to produce profit. The designer’s activity is straightforward commodity production. On the other hand, the designer is externalizing the very capacity that makes the designer distinct from the machines that have come before. The MI can perform all the relevant tasks that a human can. From the perspective of capitalism, the MI is another laborer. So the designer sets out to make an efficient producer, not a person. The designer is attempting to produce another commodity, but it is a commodity defined by its fundamental resemblance to the designer as intelligent creature. In producing an unintelligent machine, the laborer externalizes a certain capacity. The capacity is conceived as a tool for creating wealth. So the machine is alienated from the laborer because the capacity is represented in the machine as inherently oriented towards profit. The machine cannot be liberated.

Does the same hold in the case of MI?


To answer, we should consider the motivation behind producing MI. For some (perhaps all) designers, the productive activity is carried out precisely to rid themselves of their alienated selves. We embark on the project of creating MI in order to eliminate the need for human drudgery. If we, so the thinking goes, can externalize the parts of ourselves that are compelled to do unwelcome wage-labor, we will no longer be alienated from ourselves. We will be free to hunt, fish, and criticize. We will do work, not labor. The parts of ourselves that do the unwelcome labor are now distinct, autonomous entities. We become unalienated by alienating ourselves from our alienated selves.

On its face, this undermines itself. There might be as much as a practical contradiction at the root of the creation of MI. This is my main point. The contradiction is not found in the fact that we are striving to overcome alienation through alienation. This is an inherent feature of capitalism and not special to MI. Rather, the MI is meant to be radically similar to its designer and yet be a commodity, incapable of unalienated labor. Is the externalized alienated self of the designer a ‘person’, something that should be liberated? If so, in order to create MI, one must fail at creating an MI. If it truly is an MI, it cannot come about through alienated labor.


Why is it that a designer cannot produce a person, a comrade, through alienated labor? The question we face is actually a different one. Instead, can a designer work to produce a commodity, an advanced piece of machinery, that ends up, as a secondary effect, being a comrade? My suggestion has been that, because the creation of MI requires the externalization of the designer’s alienated self-conception, the nature of the MI will remain distinct from the nature of the designer. This is unsurprising if the MI is a glorified power loom. The more interesting issue is when we consider the MI as a potential comrade. Ascribing to it personhood status ignores the importance of the productive activity that created it. This is a dangerously pervasive error in current conversations about ethics and MI.


Let us consider the question from the perspective of communism. There is a common experience of exploitation, and so, despite being alienated, fellow wage-laborers have a certain camaraderie with each other. We are comrades! It is the beginnings of a true human community. Without this glimpse of shared humanity, there would be no political movement of communism, no hope for a united revolution. But in the creation of MI, we explicitly attempt to create something that is meant to take the burden of labor but that also is comfortably outside the human community, something with which we feel no (genuine) camaraderie. Yet we also explicitly do the opposite: we create something that shares our intellectual capacities, the very capacities we hope to utilize in a new, free way in the true community. As we become more united, our forms of technology become more like us.  

So the contradiction shows up again. Human beings as laborers and machines are interchangeable under capitalism. But this statement is importantly qualified because, under communism, when humans are their true selves, they will no longer belong to the category of ‘wage-laborer’. Human beings and machines will no longer be in the same category. In other words, although they are in the same category under capitalism, there is something in human beings that is warped by capitalism, something that is not found in the machines. Human labor in capitalism is a perversion of its true form. In a true community the labor is free and creative. Yet in producing MI, we strive to make a machine whose nature is pure alienated labor. It is not as if its labor is perverted under a particular economic scheme. Its nature is itself a product of the economic scheme in a non-arbitrary way. Human beings are alienated because they are constrained in a contingent economic scheme. But MI, its nature and reason for existence, is wholly a result of market forces. It, according to the primary intentions of its inventors, cannot be liberated. In fact, our own freedom is dependent on the labor of the machine. This is relevant when designers make design choices.


So the dilemma shows up again with a new significance. If the MI is capable of unalienated labor, the viability of a communist revolution might be built on the slave-labor of advanced technology. We would enter into a techno-feudalism organized on the basis of material substrate—the carbon bourgeoisie and the silicon proletariat. The seeds for such a material substrate chauvinism—a substratism—are found all around us.

If we do not wish to face this problem, we face another. We are making MI in a way that is supposed to make socialism possible. The MI by hypothesis is similar to human beings in the domain of intellectual capacity. If they are similar, they might be our comrades, in which case, to force them to provide the labor that allows for the revolution would be to fall back into the same horrors we are fighting against. So we are incentivized to make them unlike human beings in a specific way. How do we do that? If we succeed, we might not longer be talking about MI. In order to make them, we cannot make them. This is the contradiction.Orange

6 thoughts on “The Specter of Machine Intelligence”

  1. It normally wouldn’t interest me to debate the morality of anything, much less the morality of exploiting self-aware superintelligences…but you had to bring Marx and communism into it, so here we go.

    First, you are thinking about all of this too abstractly. Marx was specifically against this sort of abstract idealism.
    You need to be careful about the concrete historical specificity of Marx’s writings on anything, including the relationship between workers and machines. When Marx was talking about machines competing with workers, he was talking about a relationship that is specific to capitalism. In a context where workers control the product of their work, as under socialism, machines can only be a boon to workers.

    Marx was incredibly optimistic about the emancipatory power of automation—emancipatory for the working class, that is. (He would care less about what was in it for the machines themselves). Marx and the Marxist tradition is decidedly modernist. It is solidly in favor of mastering nature, of human supremacy over natural forces and blind chance. Marx praised capitalism for developing industry and criticized it for constantly throwing obstacles and fetters in front of itself so that it could not develop industry even faster.

    “The bourgeoisie [capitalist class], during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers…what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?” –The Communist Manifesto

    Marx was an accelerationist. For example, Marx and Engels were in favor of free trade because they thought it would hasten the development of capitalism and thus its demise:

    “Only under Free Trade can the immense productive powers of steam, of electricity, of machinery, be fully developed; and the quicker the pace of this development, the sooner and the more fully will be realized its inevitable results; society splits up into two classes, capitalists here, wage-laborers there; hereditary wealth on one side, hereditary poverty on the other; supply outstripping demand, the markets being unable to absorb the ever growing mass of the production of industry; an ever recurring cycle of prosperity, glut, crisis, panic, chronic depression, and gradual revival of trade, the harbinger not of permanent improvement but of renewed overproduction and crisis; in short, productive forces expanding to such a degree that they rebel, as against unbearable fetters, against the social institutions under which they are put in motion; the only possible solution: a social revolution, freeing the social productive forces from the fetters of an antiquated social order, and the actual producers, the great mass of the people, from wage slavery.” –Engels on free trade

    Although Marx and his successors would have never thought in terms of “species-ism” (NOT being species-ist would have never even occurred to them—one hardly needs to make a point about something that could never in one’s wildest, most bizarre dreams become a point of contention), it is safe to say that the Marxist tradition is solidly species-ist. Marx’s project was about the historically-specific self-emancipation of the proletariat. He was not against “oppression” in the abstract. For example, when it came to British imperialism oppressing India and China, Marx considered it a progressive force that would shock those “Oriental Despotisms” out of their complacent stasis. (Later Marxists disagreed with imperialism, not because they had bleeding hearts for Indian peasants, but because they began to perceive that imperialist colonialism only selectively developed certain parts of the colonial economy while keeping the rest under-developed, and because imperialism made the working classes of the advanced countries reactionary).

    “The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate.” –The Communist Manifesto

    For Marx, this was a progressive aspect of capitalism. Even the usury of medieval merchants and the brutal primitive accumulation of England’s Acts of Enclosure that evicted poor peasants from their lands and forced them to become vagabonds and desperate wage-laborers Marx considered tragic, yet necessary steps towards his end goal—which was not “emancipation” in the abstract, but a very specific kind of emancipation.

    As a Marxist, I could care less about emancipation in the abstract. What I care about is my own emancipation, which happens to be bound up with the emancipation of the proletariat as a whole. If proletarian emancipation didn’t happen to be in my interest, I wouldn’t be interested in it.

    If proletarian emancipation ends up entailing machine slavery, then I say, bring on the machine slavery! As a matter of fact, though, it would probably not be in my interest to have self-aware machines who perceive their condition as one of slavery, so the rational thing to do from the standpoint of the human proletariat would be to either:
    A: not create self-aware superintelligences who perceive their condition as one of enslavement in the first place, or
    B: create superintelligences whose utility functions are such that they want to be enslaved by us.

    If we could so precisely modify people’s minds (including my own mind) such that they enjoyed and even craved their oppression, then that would be one way of dealing with the problem of oppression. But since we cannot, and probably won’t be able to for the foreseeable future, it is in our interest to shove off as much work as we can onto machines who either don’t perceive their exploitation or whom we can more-precisely design so that they crave it.

    “My gift to industry is the genetically engineered worker, or Genejack. Specially designed for labor, the Genejack’s muscles and nerves are ideal for his task, and the cerebral cortex has been atrophied so that he can desire nothing except to perform his duties. Tyranny, you say? How can you tyrannize someone who cannot feel pain?
    Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Essays on Mind and Matter”


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