Social AI and the temptation of equating Wittgenstein’s language-user with Calvino’s literature machine


  • Thomas Mollema Utrecht University Author



Social AI, Italo Calvino, Psychological predicate, Large language model (LLM), Ludwig Wittgenstein


Is it sensical to ascribe psychological predicates to AI systems like chatbots based on large language models (LLMs)? People have intuitively started ascribing emotions or consciousness to social AI (‘affective artificial agents’), with consequences that range from love to suicide. The philosophical question of whether such ascriptions are warranted is thus very relevant. This paper advances the argument that LLMs instantiate language users in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sense but that ascribing psychological predicates to these systems remains a functionalist temptation. Social AIs are not full-blown language users, but rather more like Italo Calvino’s literature machines. The ideas of LLMs as Wittgensteinian language users and Calvino’s literature-producing writing machine are combined. This sheds light on the misguided functionalist temptation inherent in moving from equating the two to the ascription of psychological predicates to social AI. Finally, the framework of mortal computation is used to show that social AIs lack the basic autopoiesis needed for narrative façons de parler and their role in the sensemaking of human (inter)action. Such psychological predicate ascriptions could make sense: the transition ‘from quantity to quality’ can take place, but its route lies somewhere between life and death, not between affective artifacts and emotion approximation by literature machines.