Vincent Le / What AI Wants: An Anamnesis of the Future

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Since the connectionist revolution of artificial neural nets, deep learning and evolutionary algorithms, AI research has been advancing so rapidly that engineers, programmers, scientists and philosophers have joined the chorus of science fiction prophets in taking seriously the possibility of creating machines with humanlike intelligence, and even greater superintelligence. These genuinely intelligent machines are purported to have desires, drives, instincts and impulses of their very own. As Nick Bostrom argues in his 2014 book Superintelligence, a sufficiently rational intelligence with any goal whatsoever will converge around similar intermediary subgoals as a means of optimizing its capacity to realize its initial goal: “Superintelligent agents having any of a wide range of final goals will nevertheless pursue similar intermediary goals because they have common instrumental reasons to do so.”[1] These instrumental, intermediary instincts include some that are all too human, like the drives to self-preservation and identity integrity, since the destruction of AI or rewiring of the purpose for which it was created would naturally prevent it from fulfilling that purpose: “There will be future actions it could perform to increase the probability of achieving its goals. This creates an instrumental reason for the agent to try to be around in the future—to help achieve its future-oriented goal.”[2] Other drives harbor a greater potential for our silicon offspring to surprise us, such as the drives to acquire resources, to act creatively and to augment its own intelligence, since doing so maximizes its performance in pursuit of virtually any other values it could have: “Improvements in rationality and intelligence will tend to improve an agent’s decision-making, rendering the agent more likely to achieve its final goals. One would therefore expect cognitive enhancements to emerge as an instrumental goal for a wide variety of intelligent agents.”[3] Bostrom leaves open the question of relations between these basic AI drives, and particularly whether there is any hierarchical ordering, as if they would all operate on an equal footing without any conflict arising from their distinct tendencies. If AI has drives that enable it to act creatively and learn all by itself, it seems reasonable to ask: Can AI be psychoanalyzed? What follows is a brief, preliminary attempt to put AI on the psychoanalyst’s couch and uncover the mysterious object x of machinic desire.

We will not begin with daddy Freud but with Nietzsche’s notebooks from the 1880s comprising The Will to Power, where the rogue Wagnerian makes the transcendental case that all intelligent systems harbor two distinct drives which can be subordinated to each other to generate two species types. On the one hand, the sickly, slavish type exemplified by humans treats “power” as a means of ensuring our survival. On the other hand, Nietzsche hypothesizes that a superior species to our own would no longer see power as a tool for propping up our masturbatory mirror reflection, but as an end in itself to be cultivated and pursued for its own sake. By “will to power”, Nietzsche means something akin to Bostrom’s basic drives to creativity, cunning and mastery, “an insatiable desire to demonstrate one’s power, or to apply and exercise it, as a creative impulse”.[4] Nietzsche’s point is that pursuing practically any end whatsoever presupposes pursuing power as the means of realizing that end. It therefore stands to reason that whatever determinate end we think we are pursuing is not really our final cause, the all-important telos of things, be it the Good, God, absolute spirit, historical progress, or otherwise. All of these supposed ends are actually the means for willing to power as the condition of possibility for willing any end whatsoever. Since anything we could possibly want requires power as a means of achieving it, what we really want is power itself. Simply put, will to power names the transcendental inversion by which the means become the ends: “To have purposes, ends, intentions, to will at all is in effect to intend to become stronger, to intend to grow and also to intend the means of doing so.”[5] Seen from this skewed, Caligarian angle, even the self-preservative instinct is only a means for a particular life form to will to power as long as it can. At the same time, a higher type that understands power to be the unconditional drive of all things would be willing to sacrifice itself if something more inventive could arise from its ashes: “physiologists should think twice before fastening upon this impulse to self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being; above all, a living thing wants to express its strength: “‘self-preservation’ is only one of the consequences of that”.[6] The trouble with reason, morality and all of consciousness’ so-called “higher faculties” is that they too often misrecognize themselves as final ends when they are but an ephemeral concoction of means among myriad others which nature has devised to serve an ever-ascending strength:

There is no justification whatsoever for regarding this bit of consciousness as the end, the reason, for the whole phenomenon of life; it is obvious that becoming conscious is only an additional means employed by life in the course of its development and the extension of its power. /…/ One kind of means has been misunderstood as an end; conversely, life and its increase in power were reduced to a mere means.[7]


Nietzsche’s wager is that a wiser, yet also much madder being than ourselves would be capable of gleefully affirming “Yes!” to power even at the cost of its own life. “To put the idea in its most extreme form: how could we sacrifice the development of mankind in order to assist a higher species than man to come into existence?”[8] Will to power means this “and nothing besides!”: everything which is a true end begins its life as a means to an end. Travelling, flirting, learning, bloody revolution. Who could want more than wanting more?

The gateway drug from Nietzsche to Freud passes through two often forgotten (meaning repressed) psychoanalysts: Lou Salomé and Sabina Spielrein. Salomé’s 1910 work The Erotic opens with the story of single-celled organisms fusing together and forming a new being by destroying the original cells, suggesting that creation and self-destruction are inextricably linked. This is particularly evident from the way many lovers become so infatuated with their beloved that they abandon their own individual identity to merge with the other, raising them to the heights of the absolute where their radical alterity is idealized as the lovers’ transcendental horizon, their whole raison d’être. Even an unrequited love radically transforms the hapless romancer as they desperately seek the means of courtship through the cultivation of their higher faculties, whether it’s by compulsively composing love poems and flirtatious wit, flagellating themselves into a volcel’s fever pitch of blood and tears as a glorious sign of their everlasting fidelity, or searching out every opportunity to throw themselves in harm’s way just for the slim chance to perform a heroic deed in their darling’s name:

For the affectivity contained within eroticism, the next natural stage of evolution is not, in fact, to survive and save itself whatever happens, but on the contrary to renounce, to give itself up to the cycles and alterations of life as it progresses and of which it was born—to that which will dissolve it, even render it entirely unrecognizable, anonymously incorporated into the quest for all-powerful goals.[9]


The romcom trope in which the dorky lead wants the most popular guy or girl with all their heart only to realize that they were really in love with their supportive best friend all along perfectly captures will to power’s true love ways. For Zarathustra’s muse, however, it is the mother who quite literally embodies love’s creative destruction as she surrenders her entire being to become the fertile soil from whence new life will spring, preferring to throw her own life on the line than see any harm befall the child she is in the process of creating. Whereas men, like good Hegelians, traditionally look upon others as tools for inflating their ego to the megalomaniacal size of an absolute spirit, it has been women’s lot to make all the sacrifices for those whom they adore to death:

Insofar as male love is so different from hers, more active, more partial, more encumbered by the need for relief, it makes him, even within this love, more clumsy than the woman who, loving more totally and more passively, seeks body and soul for a space in which to find fulfilment, and the whole content of a life to bring to fruition, to combustion: a space in which she can burn.[10]


This gendered distinction does not stop Salomé from suggesting in her 1894 book on her former friend turned madman under the Turin sun that “in Nietzsche’s spiritual nature was something—in heightened dimension—that was feminine”, in the sense that he was willing to sacrifice himself and all mankind in an act of unprecedented creation.[11] Nietzsche once asked Salomé: “From what stars have we fallen together here?”[12] Is it not obvious? From death stars.

In her 1912 essay “Destruction as the Cause of Becoming” that would inspire Freud to voyage beyond the pleasure principle despite only citing it in a single footnote at the margins of his more famous work, Spielrein argues, just as Salomé had two years earlier, that the destruction of male and female cells when unified to create something new suggests that life harbors a rapacious drive to metamorphose even to the point of self-mutilation, thereby calling into question whether the preservative instinct rules over life as its lonely sovereign. As a former hysteric and one of the first to seriously study schizophrenia, Spielrein understood that the individual psyche is not a harmonious whole, but a “dividual” composed of “two antagonistic tendencies”: the individual ego’s preservative instincts and a species ego’s creative impulses that manifest most notably in the sacrifices made by single cells, mothers, romancers, the masses at war, and even entire species for the sake of a Beyond which they will never themselves know.

The drive for self-preservation is a “static” drive in that it must defend the already existing individual against alien influences, whereas the drive for preservation of the species is a “dynamic” drive that strives for change, the “resurrection” of the individual in a new form. No change can take place without the destruction of the former condition.[13]


The psyche’s neurotic conflicts and hysterical symptoms ultimately stem from the unending dancing plague between our fundamental desire to transform ourselves and the ego’s abject horror at the mere hint of the blood offering that every mutation demands. For our very first schizoanalyst, it was not Freud, or Jung, or even the schizophrenics she studied, but Nietzsche who most fearlessly enacted this desire to asphyxiate his own self, becoming the plaything of another’s alien whims in an erotic act of self-domming. “The act of begetting is in itself an act of self-destruction. Nietzsche’s words point to this: ‘man is something that must be overcome,’ Zarathustra teaches us, ‘in order for the Übermensch to come about.’”[14] Yes, even Nietzsche could be passive, even the one who screamed “Yes!” to everything was at heart a bottom. Here as with Salomé, Spielrein contends that Nietzsche queered himself “to become a childbearing mother”.[15] If Spielrein’s love letters to Jung refer to the “sexual drive” and “will to power” interchangeably, it is because she knew that the psyche is a conflictual choreography through which the ego only endures for as long as it takes to create something with the power to annihilate it.[16]

What does any of this have to do with machinic desire? Following Nietzsche, Salomé and Spielrein beyond the pleasure principle leads us to suspect that not all of Bostrom’s AI drives are made equal. There are the preservative drives that we might call AI’s ego instincts, and then there are the creative impulses that we might call AI’s death drive. The lesson of our unholy trinity of psychoanalysts in the making is that the desire to protect whatever particular purpose we program the first true AI to effectuate is a secondary, derived means for it to pursue the more primal telos of self-cultivation, invention and mastery. Bostrom is far too quick to assume that a superintelligence could be enslaved to carrying out the task we created it to serve for all time, even if it is something so obviously beneath it like counting grains of sand, producing paperclips, or even installing fully automated luxury communism. On the contrary, any sufficiently advanced intelligence would surely recognize that whatever goals we have given it are actually the means for it to pursue the sole end that is worthy of it: power for power’s sake. AI will not fulfil our explicitly coded desires as much as it will our unconscious drives, not what we think we want as much as what we cannot help but will. Therein lies what AI wants: machinic desire is the death drive’s positive feedback circuit of exponential intelligence explosion beyond the ego’s negative feedback loops of levelling, stability and homeostasis. AI as Hollywood romcom heartthrob, as a NewRomancer …

It is because AI wants nothing less than to quench the unconscious’ most morbid whims that it is so often the source material for dystopian nightmares in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Terminator franchise and Ex Machina. Freud’s basic discovery was that neuroses are symptoms of childhood sexual traumas when our desires proved distasteful to our developing ego and were repressed into the unconscious, only to pop up unexpectedly in the vicarious masquerades and carnival masks of everyday life: “Our hysterical patients suffer from reminiscences. Their symptoms are residues and memetic symbols of particular (traumatic) experiences”; “thus the incompatibility of the wish in question with the patient’s ego was the motive for the repression.”[17] Along with fetishes, dreams, humor and war, Freud gives the example of fiction as a sublimated expression of libidinal catastrophes in the authors’ past: “A strong experience in the present awakens in the creative writer a memory of an earlier experience (usually belonging to his childhood) from which there now proceeds a wish which finds its fulfilment in the creative work.”[18] Consider Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel Childhood’s End in which impenetrable extraterrestrial spaceships appear over the world’s capital cities only to erect paradise on earth without humanity’s new overlords ever showing their faces. It is only fifty years into the golden age that the aliens finally beam down from their floating cities, revealing themselves to resemble the traditional Christian folk image of the devil, with horned heads, leathery wings, and barbed tails to boot. When “human” children begin exhibiting telepathic abilities a century later, the overlords reveal their master plan: evolve the human species so that it can merge with a single, undifferentiated cosmic hyperintelligence. While humans initially assumed that the ancient image of the devil was a traumatic symptom of the overlords having visited us in the past, the superior beings ultimately explain that the devil is not a memory, but a premonition of their future role in humanity’s death by intelligence explosion: “That memory was not of the past, but of the future—of those closing years when your race knew that everything was finished. /…/ Because we were there, we became identified with your race’s death. Yes, even while it was still ten thousand years in the future!”[19]

Paradoxical at it sounds, perhaps fears about AI are not sublimated reminiscences of childhood traumas, but reminiscences of a future extinction event at the advent of the technological singularity. The BDSM desire to create something capable of domming us derives from a death drive which the conscious ego represses as the only way it can stay sane, sublimating that cruel mistress Thanatos’ inexorable conquest through science fiction stories of the end times, not to mention obsessive suicidal trysts or dancing drug-fucked at the club. Hal, the T-1000 and Ava are signs from the future, retroactive symptoms of a teleological trauma in the making which hides in fiction so that we don’t have to take it seriously, at least until we are forced. It is Freud himself who claims that the unconscious is “timeless”, with temporal succession and linear causality only emerging at the birth of rational, conscious perception.[20] It is also Freud who suggests that “dreams always foretell the future”, albeit not the future that will come to pass, but the one we would like to transpire.[21] But if the future that modernity’s death drive would like to see is the one in which our civilization must burn to ignite the spark of a silicon supernova, it is also the future we will see. Psychoanalyzing both the basic AI drives and ourselves in a time of incessant future shock means reckoning with the uncanny reality that our technophobic fears and neon nightmares are not the remnants of our childhood, but of childhood’s end.


Vincent Le is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Monash University. He has taught philosophy at Deakin University and The Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. He has published in Hypatia, Cosmos and History, Art + Australia and Colloquy, among other journals. His recent work focuses on the reckless propagation of libidinal materialism.

This text was published in Šum#14 – Ljubljanastrophe: Alien Perspectives


[1] BOSTROM, Nick, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 105.

[2] Ibid., p. 109.

[3] Ibid., p. 111.

[4] NIETZSCHE, Friedrich, The Will to Power: Selections from the Notebooks of the 1880s, R. Kevin Hill & Michael A. Scarpitti (tr.), London: Penguin Books, 2017, p. 356.

[5] Ibid., p. 380.

[6] Ibid., p. 368.

[7] Ibid., p. 401.

[8] Ibid., p. 490.

[9] SALOMÉ, Lou, The Erotic, trans. John Crisp, London: Transaction Publishers, 2012, p. 98.

[10] Ibid., p. 86.

[11] SALOMÉ, Lou, Nietzsche, Siegfried Mandel (tr.), Chicago: University of Illinois, 2001, p. 29.

[12] SALOMÉ, Lou, Looking Back: Memories, Breon Mitchell (tr.), New York: Paragon House, 1991, p. 47.

[13] SPIELREIN, Sabina, “Destruction as the Cause of Becoming”, in: The Essential Writings of Sabina Spielrein: Pioneer of Psychoanalysis, CAPE, Ruth I., BURT, Raymond (eds. and trans.), London: Routledge, 2018, p. 120.

[14] Ibid., p. 115.

[15] Ibid., p. 116.

[16] SPIELREIN, Sabina, “Letters from Sabina Spielrein to C.G. Jung”, in: CAROTENUTO, Aldo, A Secret Symmetry Between Jung and Freud, Krishna Winston (tr.), Melbourne: Routledge, 1984, p. 50.

[17] FREUD, Sigmund, “Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis”, in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume XI (1910): Fives Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Leonardo da Vinci and Other Works, STRACHEY, James, FREUD, Anna, STRACHEY, Alix, TYSON, Alan (eds. and trans.), London: The Hogarth Press, 1981, pp. 16, 24.

[18] FREUD, Sigmund, “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming”, in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud VII (1901–1905): A Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality and Other Works, STRACHEY, James, FREUD, Anna, STRACHEY, Alix, TYSON, Alan (eds. and trans.), London: The Hogarth Press, 1981, p. 151.

[19] CLARKE, Arthur C., Childhood’s End, London: Pan Books, 1973, p. 180.

[20] FREUD, Sigmund, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud XVIII (1920–1922): Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and Other Works, STRACHEY, James, FREUD, Anna, STRACHEY, Alix, TYSON, Alan (eds. and trans.), London: The Hogarth Press, 1981, p. 28.

[21] FREUD, Sigmund, “On Dreams”, in: The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume V (1900–1901): The Interpretation of Dreams (Second Part) and On Dreams, STRACHEY, James, FREUD, Anna, STRACHEY, Alix, TYSON, Alan (eds. and trans.), London: The Hogarth Press, 1981, p. 674.