Who’s Training Whom?


Illustration created by Midjourney with the prompt “a person standing in a massive wheat field on a beautiful blue sky day –ar 3:2 –v 4”


The relationship between humans and technology has always been dynamic, with each shaping and being shaped by the other. Which raises the question, how will we shape AI and how is it likely to shape us?

Did Humans Evolve to Serve Wheat?

In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond proposed the idea that humans did not domesticate wheat, but rather, wheat domesticated humans. He argues that around 11,000 years ago, humans were living as hunter-gatherers and relied on various plants and animals for food. However, humans eventually discovered that they could cultivate and harvest certain plants such as wheat, barley, and rice for a more reliable source of food. This was the beginning of the agricultural revolution, which allowed humans to settle in one place and form communities.

According to Diamond, as humans began to rely more heavily on these crops, they were forced to adapt to the needs of the plants. For example, wheat plants produce seeds that are difficult to harvest and require a lot of time and effort to remove from the stalks. In response, humans developed new tools and techniques to make the process more efficient, such as sickles and threshing floors.

Better Adapted Wheat, Better Adapted Humans

Diamond also argues that the domestication of wheat created a new relationship between humans and their environment. As humans became more invested in the success of their crops, they modified their behavior and social structures to protect and nurture them. This led to the development of complex societies with specialized roles and hierarchies.

Diamond’s idea that wheat domesticated humans challenges the traditional view that humans were the primary agents in the domestication of plants and animals. He suggests, instead, that the relationship between humans and the crops they cultivated was a reciprocal one, with both parties shaping each other’s development over time.

Shaping and Being Shaped

Diamond’s thesis seems to apply to almost every successful technology. As specific technologies become more developed and integrated into our lives, we often find ourselves modifying our behavior and social structures to accommodate them. For example, the invention of the automobile led to the development of road networks, traffic laws, and car-centric urban and suburban planning. Similarly, the widespread adoption of smartphones has led to changes in the way we communicate, work, and socialize. I’m sure you can think of many more examples.

We Train AI Models, but Do They Also Train Us?

Which brings me to generative pretrained transformers and conversational AI. It is easy (maybe too easy) to extend Diamond’s thesis to suggest that not only are we training generative AI models, but the models are also training us. As AI advances we are going to build better infrastructure to support it. In turn, it will help us do more and more, and as we continue to shape AI, it will continue to shape us.

What might this mean in practice? We can imagine a world where we begin to rely on generative AI the way we rely on our smartphones or the way we rely on cloud computing. Maybe we will outsource parts of our brains like we have done with contact lists and wayfinding. There is a very good chance AI will change us as much as we change it.

So What?

Ultimately, the reciprocal relationship between humans and generative AI models highlights the need for a more nuanced and complex understanding of the role of technology in business and society. By adopting a holistic and human-centric approach to technology, we can leverage the potential of these tools while also ensuring that they remain aligned with our core values and goals.

Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit shellypalmer.com.


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