Monday, February 12, 2024

AI is the Copernican collective, cultural mind - it is US!

Why has OpenAI reached 1.7 billion uses per month? This astounding figure takes it way beyond Netflix (1.5 billion), even Microsoft (billion) and that’s not counting the other models out there and a multitude of multimodal services. The idea that this is a fly-by-night fad is well and truly over. It is the tech meteorite that promises, for some an extinction event, others a Cambrian explosion, for most both exciting and terrifying, out of this change comes opportunity.

Copernican shifts

Something has been missed here, not just the scale of the shift but the deep nature of the shift. This is the latest of a series of Copernican shifts in our species. The first was the actual Copernican Revolution, when we were knocked out of our place at the centre of the Universe to a little rock circling the sun. The second was the Darwinian Revolution, where accidents of mutation produced a smart ape. We were no longer singular, special and superior beings but a mere animal. All of these reversed previous views of us as created, exceptional, unique, created beings.

This latest Copernican shift says we are no longer the masters and sole creators of our own knowledge. For generation after generation, we have passed our cultural knowledge down, first through teaching and learning (not always the same thing), then by externalising, storing and archiving, as written and printed material, then digital archiving with search and retrieval. This was a world of created and stored media – of books, PowerPoints and flat screens of video.

At the same time we now understand that we are cognitively capped. We have limited working memories, fallible long-term memories, forget almost everything we are taught, have limited perceptual ranges, lots of biases, suffer from emotional swings, can’t network with other brains, sleep eight hours a day, get dementia and die. We need to have some humility about this fragility, not cliched slides showing a list of abstract nouns, all starting with ‘C’, and labelling them 21st century skills.

This AI Copernican shift started with the extended mind, seeing technology as an extension of our human-all-too-human talents; robots on strength and accuracy, broadcast media for scale, storage and transmission on scale, search and retrieval for knowledge, smartphones as powerful personal assistants. We could see AI as a further extension of the extended mind, what most now call the augmented mind. It is more than this. It is Copernicus speaking to Copernicus.

This AI revolution is not the AI of old, the behind-the-scenes aid to cognition. It is US! We work with it as part of a collective. This is far more than extension and augmentation…. it is collective dialogue.


We had a hint of what was to come with social media, where the world took to creating, posting, commenting, liking and messaging on a massive, global scale. We understood that our data was being used to personalise ads but that personalisation did no real harm to others. We became personally political with less party allegiance; genre fluid in entertainment and music; promiscuous on media types such as images, videos and podcasts. Who saw that listening to dialogue in audio would become the learning experience of choice on the internet through podcasts? It was the same with texting, an accident of early technology, now the mainstay of comms. The clues were there all along – that we evolved by speaking to each other.

Now we are faced with a technology that is our equal, can even surpass our abilities. We are not engaging with reality, we are in dialogue with and creating new realities. As we speak to it and it speaks back, we are engaged with our own cultural legacy, to create a new collective cultural future. We are re-evaluating what we are and what we could be in dialogue with our new selves, a collective, communal, hive self, of which we are a part.

Only months in, we see how this is starting to shape up. We are no longer mere recipients of culture, we create our own culture. We can all be writers, graphic artists, data analysts, coders, musicians and film makers. This technology gives us an overwhelming sense of little God-like freedom, unlike anything we’ve seen before, because it plays to personal agency.

As individuals we get the personalised responses we need as it is ‘dialogue’, not monologue from another. It is the low floor (easy to use), high ceiling (astonishing reward) and wide walled (knows everything) interface that Papert so admired and we have been waiting on. We are AI.

Generative dialogue

I have created my own self as an avatar. It looks like me, it talks like me with a Scottish accent and can speak, with perfect lip-synch, over 100 languages. The next step, which is now available, is to create an avatar that can be used in real-time, so that you can speak to it. Digital-Don is my GPT containing much of what I’ve written over two decades on learning, learning theorists, learning design, learning technologies and AI. Selfies all started with paintings in the Renaissance, Holbein and Rembrandt allowed the rich and famous to be seen, then photography democratised the self-portrait into the on-going, episodic story of our lives, as did the smartphone, scaling the storied-self on social media. We are no longer creating ‘selfies’ but rich, multi-faceted, digital identities, created by ourselves. 

With Apple’s Vision Pro, we are getting closer to AI driving the move from 2D progressively through various forms of mixed reality into 3D. It also allows you to create your own avatar (personal) and speak to other 3D avatars. It is no accident that AI and 3D are happening simultaneously as they feed off each other.

As you use these tools, you see the difference, as it is we who ask and respond to the technology.  Like any dialogue you can feel the simultaneous internal dialogue kick in as we reflect, thing about what has just been said and what we should say next. We can be in the flow of dialogue, aware, attentive and responsive. 

Teaching and learning

More than this, in dialogue, we find the sort of learning experiences we craved all along, a perfect tutor who can teach any subject, at any level, at any time, in any place, with personalised feedback, endlessly patient, in any language, sensitive to different learning needs. This is a powerful antidote to the one-size-fits-all lectures, blackboard classroom sessions, flipcharts, PowerPoint presentations and linear online learning we have become used to. This approach equally applies to healthcare, legal services, finance, recruitment and all other cognitive professions. If we see this as a more connectionist view of learning, where the learner is part of the collective mind, participating, with agency, in that context, through dialogue, we are effecting a Copernican revolution  also in learning.


We can rant and rave all we want but AI is not going away. Objections always drop away as the upsides start to outweigh the initially perceived downsides and predictable moralising. It turns out that this technology is not about technology-in-itself, something out there to be tamed. It is about US! It is our collective cultural legacy that has been used to train these amazing models. It is we speaking to ourselves, asking what we should do next. The Copernican Revolution is not something out there but within ourselves. We are back at the centre of our relationship with knowledge and our future.

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