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What Artificial Intelligence Can Teach Us About Being More Humane

Reflections on OCD & Perfectionism

     I was recently having a conversation with a client about how to overcome the obsessive-compulsive traits that seem to dog so many of us in our culture today, about how insidiously avoidance of risk and creativity creeps in, and how this is connected to the inhumane ways that perfectionism lords over so many. Operating from the premise that one has to be totally inspired and invincible to move forward–much like the Super Mario brother moment when our hero gets the star and can zoom through anything– perfectionists are hamstrung by the compulsion to have the whole process mapped out in a controlled and linear fashion before they do anything. As we reflected on this, we noticed how robotic and rigid this was, and how unfair!

     We also noted how many people in our culture today are bound to this rigid system, where taking a risk could mean failure, shame, or guilt at not being as perfect as one feels they should be, and again, we chuckled at how robotic people were becoming. As Puck says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “What fools these mortals be!”

     Talking about OCD led us to the basic premise that perfectionism serves to keep people away from the perils of being limited and fallible, and that it was initially triggered by trauma that puts one on the verge of being out of control and existentially disconnected or even obliterated. At some point early on in development, spontaneous explorations puts the child in danger of losing connection to one’s vital ties to parents who for a variety of reasons cannot tolerate or support this kind of risk-taking (usually for understandable but unconscious reasons). Compelled by regular waves of fear rather than curiosity and interest, the child learns to work within a framework in which these kinds of creative ventures are considered problematic, wrong, or unthinkable. Consequently, the perfectionist adult suffers from an overwhelming anxiety (often, in circumscribed situations) that override the capacity to stay through with realistic and creative options. Short-circuiting a healthy and open process, regular power outages ensue.

     The client was reminded of a computer program that would continuously abort because it couldn’t compute the equation within its rigid parameters. The repetitive attempts at trying to resolve the irreconcilable equation began to take up so much space that it made it nearly impossible to make proper adjustments, much like that found in the obesssional ruminations of the perfectionist. An epiphany hit as to how different this was from artificial intelligence– where the goal is not be perfect and unlimited, but rather to make flexible decisions within time constraints and limitations, all the while being involved in a process of learning and profiting from experience. We laughed together at the irony of learning how to be humane from a robot!

     My client’s image conjured up for me the the movie Hugo, a charming coming of age film in which the main character, an orphan, learns to reconnect to the animating spirit of his father by relying and trusting in the lesson that an automaton can teach. With a heart-shaped key, the automaton links the boy to animation on both a literal and figurative sense, showing him and a traumatized old man that there is still room for hope, vitality, and possibility in a world of limitation and loss. In a similar vein, we would do well to learn how to be more human and more humane from the lessons of artificial intelligence, of the dynamic, creative, and non-linear process by which we come to know ourselves and the world, and how we learn to embrace the possibility in our limitation.

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