The word artificial, like many other words, is a mixed bag, best conceived of as a semantic continuum encompassing positive, neutral and negative connotations. An exploration of the etymology and historical development of the usage of the word can greatly increase our understanding of its more complex nuances, ambiguities and shifts in meaning and, therefore, prevent us from falling into prescriptive, dogmatic or monolithic conceptions which confine it within a single meaning.
In discussing Artificial Intelligence (AI), the term coined in 1956, we may be tempted to paraphrase the ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ refrain of George Orwell’s Animal Farm as ‘Natural good, artificial bad’ especially in the light of the fears of the late Stephen Hawking that AI ‘could spell the end of the human race.’ Speaking at MIT in 2014, Tesla and SpaceX leader and innovator Elon Musk, though hardly a technological pessimist, also called AI humanity’s ‘biggest existential threat’ and compared it to ‘summoning the demon’. We will return to such fears and reservations about ‘transhumanism’ and ‘dehumanisation’ in due course, for they are shared to a varying degree by so many who are justifiably concerned about the future of humanity, but I first want to anchor the subject in the actual word artificial by excavating its roots.
Going back as far as possible to its earliest known (or hypothetical) roots, the word artificial comes from Indo-European ar- + dhe-. The root ar- had the sense of ‘joining’ or ‘fitting together’, very much like the modern sense of an orderly, congruent and aesthetically pleasing arrangement of parts, as in its Greek derivative harmonia. Theroot dhe- had the sense of ‘to set down, put, make, shape’ (as in its derivative thesis and all its relatives, for example, hypothesis, prosthesis, synthesis, thesaurus). These senses come through in its Latin derivatives: artificialis ‘of or belonging to art’, from artificium ‘a work of art; skill; theory, system,’from artifex ‘craftsman, artist, master of an art’, from ars ‘skill, art’ + -fex ‘maker’, from facere ‘to do, make’. The original sense of the ‘skill’ required to ‘join things together’ is retained in the English word artisan.