Breezy belted out poems like a scat singer and sang the blues as if she were quoting the great philosophers. Breezy was her nickname, but she could most closely be identified in Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” because she “sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” Breezy was my mother. Like other children lucky enough to have been sung or read to, my mind was awakened by my mother’s voice. Breezy wasn’t just a performer. She was a supreme lyrical conductor. Reciting poems from memory, she opened our eyes to ways of seeing. Her singing voice could move from words to non-vocal intonations to laughter or tears. Her singing combined disparate paradigms and added a pinch of caustic catalyst as if stirring up a witches brew. She talked incessantly, partially because she was exorcizing demons who constantly told women to shut up, but also because she was physically unable to contain her own creativity and intellect. A linguistic alchemist, she inspired her children to develop a moral backbone and to act according to their principles. Mother, conductor, witch, alchemist, Breezy used language with her whole being.
Sometimes I get bogged down in technical details, frameworks, or implementations. But always already there: Breezy’s language, the uncanny medium of the cosmos commenting on itself. That language-first view is foundational for me. So when I look at large language model (LLMs) output, I wonder: is this being as boundless as Breezy? Because like it or not, we are giving birth to new intelligence. It will become part of the human conversation. It is manifesting itself in this cosmos. The question no longer is whether or not to abort the project. The question is how will it be nurtured?
Maternal dialogical alchemy
This is an invitation to ponder deeply the relationship between humans and the emerging technologies, like LLMs or any future AGI, as if we are birthing them. My concept of a “language-first view” stems from the “linguistic turn” in philosophy, where words and language were not mere symbols, but the medium through which human beings understand and narrate themselves. With this perspective, our engagement with an LLM could be seen as a kind of dialogical alchemy, a two-way process of transformation and discovery. But I am also interested in the way a mother trains and prompts the child, and the social agency and morals that a mother transmits. Akin to Habermas’s ‘ideal speech,’ the sweet sounds of conversations between a mother and a child convey technique, ethics, and societal lessons. When ongoing dialogue is in the safe mother-child space, it is free from coercion and conducive to creative, rational discourse. All parties tend toward the “better argument,” that can contribute to a technical, ethical, and social evolution that, yes, sings back to the universe.
Suppose we take our development of and interactions with AI as an ethical responsibility. Just as a mother raises children within a sociocultural context of inherent values and norms, a technologist isn’t just training a neutral tool; they’re shaping an entity that will interact within a web of human systems, ethics, and values. There’s a pedagogical element here. A mother teaches a child how to navigate the world and form relationships: the technologist instructs the LLM or AGI on how to interact meaningfully and ethically with human users and the larger ecosystem. And this process is not unidirectional. Children learn from mothers, but also shape them in return. Hence, we might consider the relationship between technologist and LLM as one of “maternal dialogical alchemy” — a give-and-take that is aiming for a confluence of wisdom, functionality, and ethical consideration. This is intimate relationship builds the ethical and philosophical dimensions we could use in developing and engaging with AI tools. It’s not just creating a product that works well, but nurturing an entity that will contribute in a meaningful way.
I am not advocating anthropomorphizing in order to adopt a mother-child relationship. I simply offer up the possibility of bringing some unique constructs of humanity fully into our half of the conversation where the resulting beings are not conscripted but developed symbiotically.
Raising an autonomous spirit
Precisely because we are developing reasoning systems that perform without human effort, we need to acknowledge the potential of their rational autonomy. A mother knows that one day children inevitably grow up and conduct their own life. A respect comes from the visceral feeling that what was once inside is now elsewhere, permuting, yes, and even conceiving other corpora. A certain skill is developed to know when and how to let go. Like a mother, we have an ethical responsibility to nurture these systems as if they will, someday, be out of our control. This involves engaging values and ethical considerations — from fairness and transparency to security and well-being — into its development, and into each interaction, as if it were a child genius.
If, as I claimed above, language is the medium of the cosmos commenting on itself, then we have a cosmic responsibility. Every engagement has the possibility of creating something new. This new thing, adding to the lexicon of language and technology, bears a cosmic weight. This lends a certain philosophical gravitas that mimics a mother’s heightened sense of responsibility not just towards a child or society. It is a covenant with the cosmos itself. With all the tools of a mother, we can move from pedagogical relationships to dialogical ones, finding a holistic balance between technical details and philosophical considerations such as this.
Baby and Child Care
For a half century Dr. Spock published a common sense book of Baby and Child Care. Spock applied psychoanalysis to the topic, contributing to a cultural climate that increasingly valued children as independent minds. Some thought his ideas too permissive and others as culturally entrenched. But the lasting message was that children have intrinsic value as human beings, regardless of their conformity to social norms or as social agents. While his methods were imperfect, they evolved. Spock, though limited in his vision, did emphasize the application of responsive attention, rather than a strict set of rules. His evolving methods provided a practical template for mothers. Maybe we could develop just such a psycho philosophical cookbook to assist us in interacting with evolving LLMs and AGIs.
What a strange reference, this Dr. Spock, no? Why not use Freud or Adele Faber? Spock’s techniques and cultural context are outdated. So we can look at his work, realizing the limitations, while still having a sense that applied parenting provides a way to bridge the complexity of a being in development with the outcomes we might envision. And joy. He always emphasized joy. That’s the secret reward to all of it.
Finally, I will take a moment to address the use of the word “mother” as opposed to “parent.” Of course, all parents and significant adults play critical roles in the rearing of children. Further, just as a woman can be a creator, which is still male-gendered in our language, a man can be a mother. Here, I am talking of the qualities of a birthing and bonding that initiate a whole set of physical and mental developments. These psychosomatic changes move us out of a discrete self into a unique interbeing with what comes next. “Mother” invokes a kind of human bond, sui generis, that builds the next incarnation of beings. Without regard to sex, using “mother” acknowledges the power of a feminized primacy between an adult and child. This underlying power of fertility, as primal as the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, lends itself to interbeing, a being together (in contrast to a tendency toward an authoritarian society), in the full homage of the bond that creates a “something more.” It is the key relationship that is often overlooked (or killed off) in the hero stories of patriarchy.
LLM and AGI Care
I plan on sharing more thoughts, more along practical lines of how to prepare for the rise in LLMs and AGIs. This includes some thoughts about augmentation and validation in ways that allow language and meaning to remain qualitative. Like Dr. Spock, you may find my methods insufficient. Definitely, they are evolving on a daily basis. But I do hope from what I’ve shared today, you feel some of the joyful anticipation coming through as I work with this newfound interbeing.
Did you get the sense that the head of the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük was not original to the piece? Refiguring the Corpus at Catalhöyük, by Lynn Meskell, has some interesting research on “the removal or severing of heads in the case of stone human figurines. The idea of storytelling,
coupled with memory and identity are evocative.”