Philosophy in a World of Robots – BIG questions for great thinkers
This article is a summary of a brain teasing session that we held at the
NUS (National University of Singapore) Medicine International Conference, Singapore, November 27, 2018 and
at the Taras Schevchenko University, Faculty for Philosophy, Kyiv/Ukraine, October 2018
The Widening Cognitive Gap
Humanity is facing its biggest challenge yet. Since the beginning of mankind our thinking capabilities were beyond our technological capabilities. We could calculate the path of planets long before the first computers were developed and adapt our societies and legal systems to reflect the profound changes and possibilities these technologies were offering. We were mastering the technologies, alongside with understanding their impact, adapting ourselves and staying mentally sane at the same time.
This period ends abruptly. As our technological capabilities have started to grow exponentially, our cognitive skills are only growing gradually. This leads to a widening gap between what we can do and our understanding of its impact. The necessary adaptations of the way how we live and interact are not keeping up the pace. Huge parts of the population are intellectually left behind.
In case our societies and leaderships do not find appropriate answers and develop naturally into a higher state of governance, they will be abolished through revolutions or a putsch by small hyper-intelligent elites or robots, or a hybrid of both.
Philosophical Challenges Ahead
The main philosophical challenges can be summarized as follows:
- the creation and development of knowledge
- the understanding and differentiation between right and wrong
- the understanding of the purpose of life
They are valid on an individual level, and on a societal level, and have a huge impact on our daily life beyond any theoretical value. The answers to and societal consensus on these questions are defining the morale foundation of our societies, the way we interact with each other, the foundation of our laws and understanding of justice, the basis for all social contracts and state governance, and last but not least the breeding ground for our mental sanity and happiness.
Now, technological change and capabilities are creating a new playfield for these philosophical challenges and insights. This playfield questions the very fundamentals of our thinking, which have been stable for the last 3.000 years:
- Knowledge creation is no more happening exclusively through human thinking, dispute, exchange and analysis, but can by artificially created and exchanged by machines (Artificial Intelligence, AI). Who is in charge?
- Too much data and information lead to a constant overload and overflow of the human cognitive system and hinder clear thinking. There is a naïve tendency to surrender to algorithms.
- Truth and Beliefs are getting blurred and manipulated in a digital and virtual world. We are entering a post-truth age, in which true and fake are more and more difficult to distinguish.
- Traditional purposes and boundaries of human life are no longer valid, this will cause a metamorphosis of humans and human interaction.
These profound challenges and questions to human societies are illustrated in six short take-aways, which are neither exclusive or exhaustive. They have a pure exemplary character for the challenges ahead of humanity.
(1) Freedom or Slavery: How free are we?
Everybody knows about Tinder and other dating applications. The basic idea is that people enter their profiles based on a set of parameters and preferences and are automatically matched by a neutral, objective algorithm, and set up to meet. So far so good. Instead of meeting at a bar, university, or work, Bob and Allison meet in the cloud. But imagine Bob and Allison meet based on a manipulated algorithm, or because someone wanted them to meet. Most users have a complete blind trust in algorithms, assuming that what comes out of these engines is neutral, objective and solely based on their criteria. We choose jobs, travel plans, drugs, business partners, romantic or sexual encounters, and even Presidents on that basis. Often because someone wants us to make these choices, not because it really matches our needs or preferences. Choices are increasingly outsourced to algorithms, which in reality are not neutral, of course. For the sake of convenience, anonymity and efficiency, we surrender subconsciously and naively our freedom of choice and widely open the doors to any form of manipulation. From the US elections to the strange ads following your search paths on the web, all possibilities to manipulation are and will always be fully exploited. The noise of constant information makes it easy for manipulators to hide themselves and their intentions and for us difficult to impossible to critically reflect and decide. In many countries every second relationship is originating in the cloud. There are predictions that the Millennials will be the last free generation on this planet.
(2) How to cope in a world where fake is real and real is fake?
Knowledge creation is based on the understanding of truth and beliefs, on a profound differentiation between true and false. We are moving high speed into a reality, where it is difficult to make this distinction. The digitalization and virtualization of all contents makes it too easy to digitally change, enhance or modify the truth: pictures, videos, sounds, statements, but also health data, personalities, bank account data. We do not have a truth stamp yet. While some politicians exploit this situation ruthlessly and create an alternative facts and post-truth habitat (i.e. The Washington Post counts 6.420 lies or grossly misleading statements of President Trump in his 649 days of office to date). At the same time, we openly provide biometric data, personal information and preferences, pictures, shopping and movement patterns and even sexual preferences to a big and unregulated data cloud, where these data will be stored forever.
With the foundation of knowledge creation in shatters, we give in to noise. The loudest will win the battle, the one who can push out a message to a maximum number of listeners and multipliers, no matter whether wrong or wright. Will the noise win in the end and be the new alternative truth? Will we be constantly influenced and manipulated? How can we navigate and orientate ourselves in a world, where we are simultaneously suffering from an overloaded brain and dramatically shrinking attention spans?
(3) Fusion of Man and Machine: The Identity Quest
It was a big surprise to science when in the beginning of the Millennium, US universities discovered that there was not even a 5 % difference between the DNA of a human and chimpanzee. Elon Musk has stated – and I tend to believe this estimation – that humanity had only a chance of survival and dominance vis-à-vis machines, in case that we fused with machines. But where will we stop to be human and start to be a machine, with 5 % of machine parts, or 50 % or 95 %?
This fusion has already started and will accelerate. It has taken off with the repair of defects/diseases from automated insulin pumps to bionic extremities, but this is only a starting point of human enhancements. The discussion of the essence of what is human has to start. Do we allow students with memory enhancements and runners with artificial joints? Is a human with 50 % machine parts still a human? And what happens if machines take over? Is a machine with an implanted human brain considered to be human? Can it register a residence and vote? It might sound sci-fi, but this process has started and is developing by leaps and bounds. Do not forget: the first Iphone was only introduced in 2007, and most people use it (or another smartphone/tablet) today more than 4 hours per day.
(4) Paradise 2.0: Robots work, Humans relax
Panic has arrived at the workforce level. The automation and robotization of large areas of our daily life and operations, will lead to mass extinction of low skilled and repetitive jobs. From automated trucks, to auto-pilot surgeries, sex robots, nurses, bankers, lawyers, huge numbers of jobs are set to disappear, and for the first time in history it happens across all industries. And we are talking huge numbers. In Germany alone, we have estimated 700.000 truck drivers. Who would believe we need those drivers in ten years from now and that we will have an alternative paid occupation for them? And this automation tsunami will hit white collar workers as well. How many banking outlets will survive in the next 10 years and what will happen to all the employees. What could be a paradise on earth, where humans relax and robots do the work, will not materialize with today’s distribution of wealth where the ownership of machines and capital is highly concentrated with a small group of super-rich. The way-out can only be a strategy of “panem et circenses” or a free general income for everyone in combination with broad entertainment and development offerings. The critical questions of who will own the robots, who will reap the benefits, what will be our occupation and purpose are getting louder. Whether our Western democracies will survive this strain on social systems in combination with the described proliferation of fake, has yet to be seen. We might see revolutions, the putsch of super elites or the transformation into managed democracies, such as Singapore or China, the end-game for Western democracies as we know them. There is no guarantee that a pure blood democracy will be the best form of governance to address the challenges of the future (see Brexit). In this regard, the mounting anger of wide circles of the population, the enormous polarity of our societies and the rise of populist movements is a bad foreboding of what to come. Donald Trump is perfectly Zeitgeist, and as in other countries his success is much more based on the hopelessness of the global middle class rather than on hyped immigration threats.
(5) Waiting for the spiritual revolution
If you ask teenagers today what they want to be later, you will not hear doctor, scientist or policeman. Many will answer that they want to be rich and famous. The life of the personal avatar is more important than the real one. Enormous time and energy is spent to create and communicate in the cloud an illusion of a perfect, pretty and sunny life. Confronted with real life, mass psychosis and depression are guaranteed. The meaning of life is reduced to the material riches. At the same time and, not surprisingly, all studies show, that people are to a high extent lonely, depressed, empty and self-centered. Their jobs are meaningless and boring, useless and they nevertheless suffer from burn-our syndromes. We literally touch our smartphones in average 4,5 hours per day – and human beings for mere 2 minutes. First we have lost our spiritual beliefs and ability to mediate in a fourth dimension (and do not forget: not to believe is also a belief). Are we now on the path to losing our human interface, hiding in anonymity and leaving all communication and interaction to technology? Where will the human race end up with, if we only concentrate on the left-hand side of our brain, on pure materialism – are we ourselves mutating into machines?
The good news: the spiritual revolution will come. As with many things, once the pendulum has swung too strong into one direction, it will bounce back with brutal force. It is only a matter of time and urgency. Humanity might realize it by itself in the end state of the global burn-out or by being forced into humility having experienced a global war or health crisis. Yet, the re-discovery of our minds and spirituality in combination with our technological skills might be the beginning of a new development stage for our race.
(6) On the verge to eternal life: the hunt for the ageing gene
There is no natural law/logic that we age and die, when cells in principle have the ability to renew and grow. So far, modern medicine was very successful in pushing up the average expectancy of life, with longevity being a mass phenomenon. However, the absolute maximum age of human beings has barely altered. We are entering an age where this will change. With the understanding of the human genome and the introduction of epigenomics, it is only a matter of time, resources and computing power until we will have found the triggers to stop and even revoke the ageing process of critical cells for our life. The hunt for the ageing gene and epigenomics is in full swing, and it will develop into the biggest business this planet has ever seen.
Then, humanity will reach the final philosophical question. The quest for the purpose of life is profoundly different in such a context. What will we do, if our life span is massively extended, and who might decide how long we live. Are we heading towards a super-elite, super-performing and longer living, which will dominate the rest of humanity, as Stephen Hawking has predicted in his last book? Eternal life can be frightening. Or are we entering the final level of our development, the human end-game, the last level of the development of our race? Note, scientists of the University Jerusalem have found out in an in-depth study, that male fertility had decreased by more than 50 % over the last 40 years, and the trend continues. So far nobody has found a satisfactory or consistent explanation for this phenomenon.
We have seen tremendous technological progress over the past decades. This has created great material wealth and well-being for many countries and its peoples. It has also strongly increased the inter-connectivity of people, communities and countries. Global resources have massively been allocated to advance this technological progress. However, this has come at the price of a slow erosion of our human interfaces and negligence of the social impact of the rapid progress. The technological progress has largely outpaced our cognitive mastering and social adaptation. It is time for a renaissance of social sciences to better understand how this progress will shape the societies in the future and how our race will stay in control.
The only time, when technology has shortly outpaced our social systems, was the beginning of the industrial revolution. This ended in real revolutions, wars, the end of aristocracy, the introduction of human rights and democratic systems. Humanity had the comfort of a 50-100 years adaptation period at that time. It can be excluded that we will be granted the luxury of such a slow-motion adaptation again.