The Tools Which Define Us

The tools which we create and make accessible define our culture and society. With the addition of new technologies like Large Language Models, many of the same unproductive arguments continue to be repeated. This post serves as an anchor to present my rationale for acceptance of different tools and avoidance or dismissal of others.

A tool is defined by its uses, of which there are typically many. A spoon may be useful for eating soup, but it is also adequate for digging a hole in dirt. These are positive uses, uses which are entirely beneficial for all parties involved. However, these are not the only uses a tool has. Rather, any tool extends beyond often recognized positive uses and into the realm of negative uses. A pencil, for example, may be a sufficient writing implement, but can also perform violent feats. While this example may seem exaggerated, it is important to recognize that every tool is capable of a myriad different uses, of which many are negative. Yet, these tools are in broad circulation and widely accepted to be harmless. Tools whose positive uses are either so vital or so numerous such that they significantly outweigh their negative uses are deemed acceptable. The distinction is not typically simple and contains nuances for the effects of the tool upon the individual and society at large. When a tool meets these conditions, it is still often engaged in avoidance of negative uses where possible. An automatic nail driver has safety measures integrated to prevent its operator from accidentally impaling themself. These negative uses are well-understood, considered, and actioned upon.

It would not be possible to talk about tools without speaking about the inverse type, a tool whose negative uses are so numerous or so atrocious that the only acceptable course of action is prevention. To select an, unfortunately divisive, example, guns. The positive to negative tool spectrum is not one of single steps and likewise different variations of tools fall upon this spectrum at different points. Weaponry is no exception. With the express purpose of killing another living being, its negative uses often greatly exceed its positive uses. However, positive uses do exist, such as hunting, marksman competitions, and possibly safety. This is not to suggest that military grade weaponry is acceptable to disperse within the broader population, but rather to suggest that a more restrained and considered tool can accomplish the necessary positive uses while entirely preventing previous negative uses. It is important to recognize the difference of effect that these tools impose on the world compared to others. These tools distinguish themselves by their uses, no different than positive tools.

With the foundation for considering tools we have now, it is important to ask questions of new creations:

I fear that many of the necessary questions are not being asked and, at worst, the refusal to accept the existence of many negative uses is used to excuse the continued production and release of tools. The time to consider impact is not only after, but also before. One does not even need to predict the impact of AI tools now, considering the time they have been released and the substantial exploitation of its many negative uses. Over time, these tools, if produced and dispersed, will shape our world by their uses in the same way that past tools have. The tools we create today will define us tomorrow; consider whether that will leave the world in a better state than it was before.