Knight Errant Algorithms: Lessons from Don Quixote in an AI World

Jan 19, 2024 | T's Notes

If you have followed my series on insights from classics to navigate today’s world of AI, you know that I am purposefully unplugging to revisit seminal works. More than ever, I need quiet spaces to thoughtfully ponder the mind-boggling changes brought by the rapid emergence and integration of generative AI tools like ChatGPT, DALL-E, and many others. After diving into Psychology, I  turned my attention to the masterpiece “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, published in 1605 and considered the first novel ever written. 

This book is hailed as a monumental work and has made its way onto required reading lists in high-school curricula for decades.  My memory of reading it in my high school in Ontario, Canada, is hazy at best. However, I did glance through it during my son’s high school years when it was part of their curriculum. My primary recollection? They struggle to wade through its enormous 600-plus pages, with significant help from Cole’s Notes and Lit Summaries.  It was more of a “get it done” exercise. 

This time I was reading with an attentive eye and ear (thanks to Audible) looking for timeless insights to navigate the age of AI.  The themes are profoundly rich! It was difficult to know what to focus on as reflecting on the expansive ideas is deserving of a few dozen blogs. To center this, I decided to ponder just two scenarios. 

Setting the backdrop, we recall that Don Quixote is a dreamer and idealist. With his chivalric whims, he imagines himself as a gallant knight-errant in search of noble quests and the telling of his encounters continually blurs the line between fact and fiction. 

In one famous scene,  Don Quixote mistakes a group of windmills for giants and charges at them, determined to defeat them. While this scene is often referenced and played for laughs, it also speaks to a deeper truth about the importance of perspective. In this iconic scene and those that follow, Don Quixote sees the world through the lens of his chivalric fantasies, which leads him to misinterpret ordinary objects as extraordinary ones.

In the age of AI, it seems trite to say that it is essential that we don’t make the same mistake. Yet, it is worth saying. While many of us are sometimes paralyzed by the fear of what we don’t know, we are also experiencing near-mystical experiences with AI’s output.

I have to remind myself to approach the wonders of this new technology with a clear-eyed understanding of its capabilities and limitations. When I am at times tempted to be blinded by the awesome capabilities I force myself to remember that a windmill is just a windmill. As the AI-synthesis of media and information grows today, we face heightened threats of distorted realities and the calls for renewed vigilance in verifying facts/fiction, a central theme throughout the book, is more relevant than ever.

While the windmill scene is iconic, another stood out regarding AI’s parallels to the printing press.  In Part 2, during Don Quixote’s adventures in Barcelona he and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, stumble upon a printing press, the groundbreaking innovation of his time that allowed his beloved chivalric fantasy books to proliferate.

In this small scene, Cervantes cleverly blends the real with the surreal as Don Quixote encounters the very source of his distorted reality.  A fascinating conversation ensues with a translator at the printing press where he preaches the importance of truthful translation – a conversation society continues today as our very lives, news, and politics are translated by powerful image and content tools. We are forced, again, to reckon with what is authentic as well as determine the accountability and responsibility of those who are disseminating the information.  

The scene’s climax is ironic. Don Quixote discovers that the book being printed is, in fact, a book about his adventures, blurring reality’s lines even further.  Including this small scene in the book allows Cervantes to comment on the role of the printing press in proliferating fiction and the struggle between illusion and truth. 

Just as the printing press revolutionized access to information then, AI does now. This scene reflects timeless tensions between evolving technological capabilities and human faculties. Many years ago, Trevor Huges, the President and CEO of the International Association of Privacy Professionals regularly delivered an address on “Privacy Through the Ages.” The concepts he developed largely influenced my views and became the lens through which I understood our fears and hopes at the advent of every new technological shift. In his brilliant TedXUne talk, he demonstrated how every great innovation compelled a renegotiation of the term privacy. He argued that privacy is the word we give to the moments in time when we renegotiate what it means to be human in relation to society at the advent of great technological change. And now, these negotiations are accelerated – faster than ever before.

As we ponder this question anew, the timeless perspectives reflected in  “Don Quixote” offer more than just a humorous tale but also insights into human nature, the impact of technology on society, and the ever-present struggle between illusion and reality.  Pulling from the psychology themes highlighted in previous Notes, by doubling down on empathy, creativity, and moral judgment, can we steer this new technology wisely? I challenge readers to share perspectives on bridging AI progress and human values. What lessons from great works enlighten the path ahead? I look forward to continuing this important discussion.

Related Articles:

Can Depth Psychology Offer Solace in an AI-Transformed World?

Reflecting on AI, Privacy Compliance and Ethics: A Personal Journey with “The Courage to Be Disliked”

Teresa (T) Troester-Falk, Founder, BlueSky Privacy

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