Stories we tell, machines we build: a talk at the An{0}ther {AI} in Art summit in NY

I was invited to deliver the keynote talk at the An{0}ther {AI} in Art Summit in New York, at the New Museum on April 24, 2019. This is the unabridged version of my talk.


From left to right: Isolde Brielmaier (Westfield World Trade Centre), Zia Khan (VP Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation),  Kamal Sinclair (New Frontier Story Lab, Sundance),  George Zarkadakis, Amir Baradaran (Founder and Lead Organizer of the Summit).

In 1649 Rene Descartes, the most famous philosopher in Europe at the time, accepted the invitation of 19-year old Christina, Queen of Sweden, to become her tutor. There is a strange and apocryphal story that recounts his boat journey from Amsterdam to Stockholm. In the story, Descartes is travelling with his charming daughter, Francine, but for some strange reason the girl never shows herself on deck, but is always kept away from everyone, locked inside Descartes’ quarters. That is enough to stir the curiosity of the crew, which turns into suspicion when the boat hits upon a tempest in middle of the sea. Fearful of bad omens, the sailors seek the young girl who has so mysteriously avoided them. Was she a witch? Did she possess some alchemical powers? Had she summoned the devils of the sea? With bloodshot eyes they descend into her room and kick their way through the locked door. But the room is empty, except for a wooden chest that is firmly shut with a padlock. Hastily, the seamen crack the chest open and, to their horror, they find inside a living doll, a mechanical automaton that moves and behaves just like a human being. The signs of dark magic are obvious for all to see; and for the captain it was an easy decision to throw poor, mechanical, Francine overboard.


Francine, the robot daughter of Descartes, thrown overboard.

You can read in this story what you like. For instance, how prejudice and ignorance may clash violently with scientific advancements, and often win. Or, perhaps, a prophecy for the future of Artificial Intelligence: a neo-Luddite grassroots movement rising against robots and thinking machines, the fourth Industrial revolution coming to an abrupt and unseemly end.

For me, it’s important that the story involves Descartes. He was the one who suggested that humans are, in effect, machines. He loved human-like automata, which were very fashionable back in 17th century Europe – and he may indeed have built a few himself. Automata were a splendid metaphor for his idea of what humans are. Our bodies, according to Descartes, are made up of mechanical parts that tick-tock together, like the gears of a well-tuned clockwork. Since Descartes was not an atheist, he also suggested that one said part, a small gland in the centre of the brain called the pineal gland, was the seat of the soul, the place in which all our thoughts are formed. And thus, by separating the material body from an immaterial soul, Descartes impressed upon our thinking the seal of dualism forevermore. What separates life and death is thinking: I think, therefore I am. I cease to think, and I am no more.

Around a century and a half later, on the question of animating dead flesh, Mary Shelley replaces the mechanical with the electrical. The monster is an assembly of dead bits and pieces that come alive through electrification. But does the monster have a soul? Apply Cartesian logic to the question and the answer must be yes: he thinks, therefore he is. He also loves, and hates too.

Dualism for an atheist age requires that we expunge the soul and replace it with something that “feels” less mysterious: software, for example. Our digital computers are quintessentially Cartesian. They are made of inanimate dead matter, the hardware, the silicon chips, the mesh of wires, the peripherals, etc. They come “alive” thanks to the immaterial “software”, the series of commands and instructions, the pattern of ones and naughts, the algorithm. The computer metaphor is so powerful, and so resplendently dualistic, that we see in computers a reflection of our own image. Many speak of the next stage in human evolution as the fusion of humans and intelligent machines. The only possible endgame in the story of computer technology is, therefore, Artificial Intelligence.

It is a fascinating endeavour – at least to me – to explore the complex interplay between literary narratives and technological evolution. Sometimes a literary metaphor facilitates, and sometimes, impedes, the advent of a specific technology; and often an emerging technology breeds the next literary metaphor.


Making a robot in someone’s own image


Cinematic parallels: Ex Machine imitating Lang’s Metropolis.

How we view ourselves is perhaps the most profound example of how literary and artistic metaphors modulate and transform through time in conversation with technology. Go back to the dawn of the agricultural revolution, when life was seen to grow from inside the ground, and stories were told that humans were also created of mud and spit. Jump forward into the Hellenistic era where hydraulics was used to construct the first complex machines, and medicine views humans as containers of tubes where liquids (called “humours”) flow. It was an idea so powerful, that persisted well into the early 19th century, when it was gradually replaced by the germ theory of disease and modern medicine. Descartes and mechanical automata, electricity and vitalism, are other examples in the history of literary metaphors for life.

Because, we tend to think through metaphor, it is too easy to confuse the metaphorical with the actual. This is a trap that we find ourselves today. We confuse Artificial Intelligence with Intelligence. Worse, we confuse our own brains for computers. The brain is not a computer, not a digital computer at any rate. It does not separate into hardware and software, flesh and non-flesh. It’s all flesh. My apologies therefore, to those who believe in the Singularity, that glorious moment in the future when they will be able to upload their minds in a computer and live the eternal life. I am sorry folks, but the mind is not separate from the brain, and therefore it is not uploadable or downloadable, or algorithmic, or programmatic, or made up of ones and zeros. I suspect the mind is more complicated than that, and we should wait for neuroscience to progress somewhat before we have a more learned conversation about what the mind truly is.

Let’s now turn the mirror of metaphor round….

Now it is the machine that is looking in the mirror, imitating us. In doing so, machines have started spinning their own stories. Here’s a story that a machine recently came up with:

Dr. Jorge Pérez, an evolutionary biologist from the University of La Paz, and several companions, were exploring the Andes Mountains when they found a small valley, with no other animals or humans. Pérez noticed that the valley had what appeared to be a natural fountain, surrounded by two peaks of rock and silver snow.

Pérez and the others then ventured further into the valley. “By the time we reached the top of one peak, the water looked blue, with some crystals on top,” said Pérez.

Pérez and his friends were astonished to see the unicorn herd. These creatures could be seen from the air without having to move too much to see them – they were so close they could touch their horns.

While examining these bizarre creatures the scientists discovered that the creatures also spoke some fairly regular English. Pérez stated, “We can see, for example, that they have a common ‘language,’ something like a dialect or dialectic.”

Dr. Pérez believes that the unicorns may have originated in Argentina, where the animals were believed to be descendants of a lost race of people who lived there before the arrival of humans in those parts of South America.

While their origins are still unclear, some believe that perhaps the creatures were created when a human and a unicorn met each other in a time before human civilization. According to Pérez, “In South America, such incidents seem to be quite common.”

Thus spoke GPT-2, a “model” (shorthand for an artificial neural network), trained to predict the next word given the previous words in a text. OpenAI, the non-profit organization, that trained the model were both elated and horrified by their achievement. So much so that, despite the “Open” in their name decided to keep GPT-2 firmly “closed” and “restricted”, lest it was released in the digital wild adding more fake stories to the ones already peddled by humans. I am horrified too, but for two completely different reasons. Horror 1: we now have scientific proof that creative writing can be mindless and stochastic, a probabilistic process that has no need for self-indulgent fluff such as “inspiration”, “imagination”, or “consciousness”. Horror 2: I really liked the story. I might even put my money up and buy the whole unicorn discovery book, if GPT-2 ever gets the permission to write it.

I won’t be the only one who’s ready to pay for computer-generated creativity. Last October, Christie’s sold “Portrait of Edmond de Belany”, an algorithm-generated print in the style of 19th century European portraiture for the amount $432,500. The AI art gold rush is here! In New York!

The artificial artists are called GANs, with an A, acronym for Generative Adversarial Networks. It’s interesting how they work. They are made up of two artificial neural networks, working against each other. One network constantly creates Fake images, starting with white noise. Let’s call that network “Donald Trump”. The other network – call her “Democrat Opposition” – takes two inputs: the fake image input from Donald Trump, and a real image from a human trainer. The Democrat Opposition compares those two inputs and calls BS, when it discovers that Trump has fed it with a fake image. But – and here’s the genius of the system – Trump takes the output of the Democrat Opposition’s judgement and uses it to improve the fake image. Do this a few thousand times and Trump ends up creating fake images that the Democrat Opposition cannot tell the difference from the real ones. GANs are the ultimate content machines: journalists, copywriters, graphic artists, photographers, and assorted media and advertising creatives, your days are numbered!

But what about art? Will the museums of the future hang on their walls artwork from the grand AI masters of the 21st century? Well, Marchel Duchamp showed that anything can be art. “Art is what you get away with”, added Andy Warhol. GANs can do urinals, Campbell soup cans, and Renaissance portraits at a blink of an eye, and you won’t be able to tell the difference. Trained, as we humans are, to welcome the new and shameless with gasps of awe and adulation, GAN art passes the Turing test with flying colours. The only problem is that GANs are trained in art that already exists. AI-generated art is trapped in the Past. With all the hype surrounding it AI-generated art may feel novel and exciting today, but will soon get tiresome, repetitive, familiar and uninteresting. You see the AI we currently have at our disposal, impressive as it is, is “narrow” AI. It is only good – very good actually – within a narrow domain determined by specific goals set by humans. Current AIs lacks the will to deny, doubt and challenge, the essential virtues of human creativity. Effectively, we have built useful artificial savants. Those savants, when working together with humans, can act as cognitive and creative multipliers. AI can augment artistic and scientific endeavour, it can be a powerful tool in our ever-expanding technological toolbox for creating, exploring, discovering, and profiting. And that’s quite a wonderful thing we should all look forward to.

But, human and artistic augmentation may not be the end of the story with AI. And since we are all gathered here today united around the question of “what’s next?”, let me speculate about the future of Artificial Intelligence.

Literary engine

Depiction of the Lagado word machine, eerily looking like a neuromorphic chip.

It is foretold in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In Book III, Gulliver is abandoned by pirates on the continent of Balnibarbi. After a visit to the flying island of Laputa, Gulliver is taken to the Academy of Lagado, where “useless projects” are undertaken. There, he is given a demonstration of a word machine, which is nothing less than a giant mechanical computer used for making sentences and books. The wise men of the Academy pride themselves for discovering a machine that renders obsolete any study or expertise; for an absolute idiot can now write a masterpiece by virtue of cranking the machine. The GPT-2 is not there yet, and it will never be, given the statistical nature of today’s machine learning systems. There are limits to using statistics in order to predict language sentences without understanding meaning. But what is meaning? And can a machine understand the meaning of things, of words and ideas, of paintings and music? Can a machine be, or become, conscious?

If we assume that there is nothing magical about the human mind, and that it’s a product of natural processes and interactions, then there is no reason to deny that a non-biological, artificial entity may gain consciousness. The real question should be how. To answer the question we need two things: a general theory of intelligence, and some kind of idea of how to build computers that are not digital, or Cartesian, or dualistic, if you prefer.

General theories of intelligence exist and are quite mature. Suffice to say that the most interesting of them looks into how thermodynamics play out in biological systems. A key idea here is entropy, the degree of disorder. Living things, brains too, continuously fight against the tendency of the universe towards chaos. Information and thermodynamics have a very interesting relation, conceptually as well as mathematically, and replacing statistics with physics seems to me a much more promising path towards General Artificial Intelligence.

But what about computers? Well, life and brains are not digital but analogue. A good non-digital, analogue computer architecture goes by the name “neuromorphic”. Essentially, it is hardware that directly emulates how biological neurons function and communicate. There are currently several experiments around the world where teams of scientists and engineers are trying to build General Artificial Intelligence systems. One of the most interesting projects is called Spinnaker, and is run at the University of Manchester, in UK. There, a neuromorphic supercomputer uses a million processing units to emulate the internal workings of up to a billion neurons. The machine is currently simulating the 100 million neurons inside a mouse’s brain. The human brain, with 100 billion neurons, is next…

So within the next 5 years expect some very interesting publications that go beyond the statistical and the digital, and into the physical and the neuromorphic. General Artificial Intelligence is theoretically feasible and technologically, not too far away. When it is finally delivered we will have created a new intelligent being, a new “I” in our social and cognitive universe.

Will we have delivered a “useless project” then, much like the fictional academics of Lagado? Will that historical moment be one of triumph, of tribulation, of both? One thing’s for certain: that the ethical, legal and social challenges that will derive from such a profound act of creation will be nothing less than Promethean.

Work, Love, Polis: a talk at the National Library of Norway

On December 5, 2018 I was honoured with an invitation to open the “Fantastic Futures AI Conference” organized by the National Library of Norway, in Oslo. I put together my talk like a triptych of words; “Work”, “Love” and “Polis”. For each of the words I used a story to explore what the words mean – or might mean – in a world of intelligent machines. The text below is the transcript of my talk:


In my first story a wise and omnipotent Creator decides to fashion two creatures in His Own Image, a male and a female. I guess you know their names…

Adam & Eve

He places them inside a beautiful garden where everything is plentiful, so the two happy creatures have nothing to worry about. They can spend their days doing little else but enjoy themselves, bask in the eternal sunshine. It’s a world of material abundance and endless leisure. Sounds like a Paradise – right? Anyway, something happens, the female gets somewhat curious about something that was out of bounds – the Creator gets really pissed off about that, and that’s the end of the short holiday we humans enjoyed in the Garden of Delights.

As our great-great grandparents get kicked out a heavenly, thundering voice delivers, by way of punishment, some fateful words: In the sweat of thy face thou eat bread!  In other words: If you want to eat – go get a job!

Some say that this biblical story encodes a deep trauma in human evolution. The pain and anguish of transforming from a free hunting and gathering species into a hard-toiling, face-sweating, farming species, subject to laws made by kings. That the story marks beginning of the agricultural revolution. The story also marks the genesis of economics: the beginning of scarcity. It’s all about work from now on, and money, and power. And war too – for isn’t war the result of scarcity?

The story of Adam and Eve led many Christian faithful to uphold work as a way of redemption. But even the unbelievers among us share a deep-rooted belief in the intrinsic value of work. Work makes the man, or the woman. Work qualifies us as valuable members of society. The jobless, the lazy, the indolent, are a burden to hard-working, family-raising taxpayers. But you can also read this story in another way. That work is unnatural.

Indeed, one would argue that once we managed to overcome our ignorance and superstition, and embraced science and technology, our prime goal has been to improve our lives. To sweat less. To live longer, but not in order to work more but to enjoy more. To return to that pre-farming state of existence where we do not need to worry about tomorrow, when we lived in the warm embrace of natural bliss.


We are the creators now and in come the robots, our creations, machines in our own image, imitating our arms and hands, building other machines for us, taking over the toil, and the need for us to carry out such heavy work. As the robots become more dexterous, and more intelligent – they start looking more and more like us. By way of extrapolation, one day soon, they may become capable of doing all the work for us. Shouldn’t we therefore welcome this? The end of work? The end of sweat? Unfortunately.. getting rid of work is complicated.

To illustrate the complication, I would like to tell you another apocryphal story that brings together two titans of the car industry, the industrialist Henry Ford II and the leader of the American Automobile Workers Union Walter Reuther. It is set the late 1950s. Ford is taking Reuther on a tour of a newly built highly automated factory, showing him the robots.

Walter – Ford says – how are you going to get those robots to pay for your union dues?

And Walter Reuther responds: Henry, how are you going to get those robots to buy your cars?

And that’s the Automation Paradox in a nutshell: if the robots do all the work, how will the workers – who will be jobless – earn money to buy what the robots produce? How will the jobless live in a fully automated world? The Automation Paradox informs the number one public fear of AI and robots, which is the loss of jobs. It also informs a slew of suggested policies to compensate for job automation. Universal Basic Income and Robot Tax are two examples. In fact South Korea has implemented a negative robot tax by reducing tax incentives for investment in automation. But, maybe, we need some fresh thinking about the challenge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Maybe we need to think outside the box of economic scarcity, of winners and of losers, of haves and of have-nots. Because, for as long as the economics of scarcity persist, the robots will create more inequality, more scarcity, more misery. Maybe we need to think of the future economy not as one of scarcity but as one of abundance.

02 Utopia

They say that futurists come in two flavours: prophets and wizards. Prophets warn of impending doom and ask to change our ways before is too late! Wizards see a way out of everything, by some kind of magic. I tend to side with the wizards. The magic out of joblessness and despair is to use our scientific knowledge and our technologies to radically change the economy. You see, technology is not a force of nature; technology is an ideology. And as such it is informed and guided by our values, beliefs, and aspirations.

We should therefore ask ourselves: to what ends shall we use automation? What purpose should automation serve? To enrich powerful corporations and the already super rich? Or to free humanity from having to sweat one’s face to eat bread?

How can democratize ownership of technology so that the bounty of automation is shared more equitably? How can we cut the Gordian knot of the Automation Paradox by moving beyond the dipole labor versus capital? What about knowledge? This year’s Nobel Prize in Economics laureate Paul Romer demonstrated how knowledge is an engine of growth. Can we spread the ownership of knowledge to the many? How can we ensure self-sovereignty of data – the fuel that runs in the algorithmic pipes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution -, quite possibly using cryptoeconomics and cryptogovernance?

Prophets warn of job apocalypse. Wizards conjure a green utopia of creative leisure for everyone. Up to you to decide whom to listen to.


Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann is considered the father of Gothic horror. They say that Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein under the influence of having read one of Hoffmann’s stories.


My next story is a fusion of two of Hoffmann’s gothic tales, and goes by the title Coppelia, the girl with the enamel eyes. It is one of the most famous and widely performed ballets. The story involves an evil genius, Dr Coppelius, who has built a life-size, dancing, doll. His diabolical plan is to bring the doll to life using a human sacrifice. As it happens, he does not have to look too hard to find someone to send to the afterworld: a young man, by the name of Franz, gets smitten with Coppelia, the lifeless doll. He just can’t take his eyes off her.

However, this young man is already betrothed to a local girl named Swanildha, and Swanildha is simply not the kind of girl to sit quietly and let someone else snap her man away. After a series of mishaps and adventures she discovers Dr Coppelius’s evil plan, shows Franz his folly by dressing up as a doll, and saves her hapless fiancé from an untimely death at the hands of the diabolical inventor.

The Coppelia story is a wonderful interplay between the human and the human artefact, the mirroring of roles and identities between the real and the imagined. Humans falling in love with human-like artefacts goes back thousands of years. Ovid in the Metamorphoses, recants how the Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion fell in love with his creation, Galatea; and how he begged Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to bring his white marble statue to life. The goddess obliged, and Pygmalion and Galatea married and lived happily ever after, in what is probably the only Greek myth with a happy ending…

Stories such as these inspired the construction of mechanical automata in the 18th and 19th century, which in turn inspired Hoffman to write his story, which in turn inspired Charles Babbage to invent his Analytical Machine, the first general purpose computer. Stories make us dream, and then they make us want to realize our dreams.

How many of us have dreamt of the modern, cinematic, robot divas, in films like Metropolis, Blade Runner, and Ex Machina: Maria, Rachel, Ava.

03 Ishiguro

The Coppellia myth lives on. Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University is creating life-like androids, mechanical imposters of real people. Staying in Japan, 2,000 “sex dolls” (not yet animated but very realistic looking) are sold in that country every year. They are called “Dutch Wives” and their buyers form bonds and relationships with them.

But, what is happening here? Can we really fall in love with “things”? With simulacra? With statues and androids and sex dolls?

Well, strangely enough, the answer is emphatically yes. We are victims of robot love because evolution has shaped our cognitive system to do exactly that! Let me explain myself. What makes us fall in love with robots, is exactly the same thing that makes us fall in love with each other – psychologists call it “theory of mind”. Our minds instinctively assume that other people have minds too, similar to ours. This cognitive ability emerges around the age of 3 to 4; and it is essential for empathy, for “feeling” for the other, for caring, for loving. Without theory of mind we would be a careless, selfish, species. We would never have literature, theatre, or art. We would be sociopaths.

Theory of mind compels us to project a “human-like mind” where there is none. If you have a dog, or a cat, or any pet, you know what I mean. We anthropomorphize animals all the time. But we also anthropomorphize inanimate objects, our cars for example (I often speak to my car, specially when it refuses to start on a cold day…). Religious veneration of rocks, statues and icons, are all examples of our minds projecting minds unto things.

In fact, you do not even need to see something in order to assume it has a mind. It is enough to listen to a human-like voice. That was the deep intuition of computer pioneer Alan Turning, when he suggested his “test” for telling if a machine is intelligent or not. If it sounds intelligent, it probably is.

04 Alexa

Intelligent machines come also in disembodied forms, like Digital Assistants or chatbots. It is not necessary to think of intelligent machines as human-looking androids only. Think of Alexa, Siri, Cortana – the real digital divas.

And there are many different kinds of love as well, beyond the erotic, or the romantic. It is the love among friends, siblings, parents and children. So here’s the dilemma: as we increasingly forge relationships with artificial beings, can we trust them? Can they really be our friends? You see, a real friend is one that prefers to tell you the truth, however painful. So far, AI algorithms are trained to flatter us, manipulate us, nudge us to behave in a controlled way. Algorithms want to make robots out of us.

What if an algorithm told you that John will make a better husband that Tom? Would you believe it? Believe it blindly, without asking why? More and more people do exactly that. Over 61% of adults age 18-29 are using a dating app in the US, with 84% stating they do so in order to form a long-term romantic relationship. These dating apps are driven by AI algorithms – that tell you whom to love. How is this different from Dr Coppelius convincing Franz that he should abandon Swanilda in favor of a mechanical girl with enamel eyes?

05 rachel

Phillip K. Dick, the sci-fi novelist, possessed a deep intuition about a future where machines imitated humans: that is would be a future of paranoia. As digital avatars become more life-like and capable of resembling anyone, real or imaginary; as digital assistants can have conversations that feel completely natural, the distinction between real humans and artificial humans will begin to fade. It will not be too difficult for maleficent criminals to develop a digital avatar of you, and have that avatar empty your bank account, or commit a crime. Neither will be hard to imagine how the fake news of today will become the fake realities of tomorrow.

So let me suggest an addition to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Here’s my Fourth Law of Robotics: Robots must always declare they are robots and never pretend to be humans.

As for the laws of love, I would just leave them as they are…


The third story I want to tell you is from a book written some 2.5 thousand years ago by Plato, one of the founders of western philosophy. The title of the book is “Republic”.

06 Sparta

For some context, Plato lived in very turbulent times. He was about 23 years old when Athens capitulated to Sparta, in the Peloponnesian War. The first thing that the victorious Spartans did was to replace Athenian democracy with the oligarchic rule of thirty aristocrats, known as the “Thirty Tyrants”.

Plato was pleased. He was an aristocrat, and one of the tyrants was an uncle of his from his mother’s side. Moreover, he was deeply disillusioned with democracy. (by way of note let me add here that Athenian democracy was a direct form of democracy, not the representative kind of modernity). The reason that Plato, and many other Athenians (mostly aristocrats) hated democracy was that they hated how easily demagogues swayed public opinion. Indeed, Plato felt that democracy was the reason that Athens had lost the war to Sparta. So he was pleased to see the end of it.

But what happened next troubled him even more. The Thirty Tyrants turned out to be even worse that the demagogues. They initiated a pogrom of their political opponents, and soon they begun to confiscate property belonging to other aristocrats. For the record, they were ousted by a popular uprising a year later, and democracy returned in Athens.

But for young Plato nothing was the same. Equally disillusioned both with democracy as well as oligarchy, he sought to imagine a better approach to government, and the Republic was the result of Plato’s thinking.

In the Republic Plato suggests that society should be ruled by a class of “philosopher-kings”. They are experts who possess the necessary knowledge for running a polis, a city, or a country – holding all three branches of government, the executive, judicial and legislative. Very importantly, the philosopher-kings hold very high moral standards. They are selfless. To make sure of that Plato suggests that they should not be allowed to have children, so that they are totally dedicated to the welfare of their fellow citizens and not bound by family ties and obligations. Philosopher kings would be selected from across the populace; among the brightest of children regardless of their family’s status or wealth.

Plato believed that the ideal society should be run by experts selected and groomed in a meritocratic way. In many ways, his argument sounds convincing. Wouldn’t you rather have experts running things than non-experts? Where the Republic fails is in attributing humans with unnatural and impossible levels of moral integrity and selflessness. History has shown that the first goal of all ruling elites is their self-preservation. Worryingly, by suggesting that society is separated in rulers and ruled, Plato’s Republic provides the philosophical foundation for totalitarianism, as the German philosopher Karl Popper has noted. For isn’t what communism, fascism and nazism suggest too? “Ideal societies” run by “ideal humans”?

But what if it was possible for technology to deliver omniscient experts who were also morally perfect? What if we had infallible AI’s instead of fallible humans running our countries? Could we see a new kind of totalitarianism rise in the 21st century, where the AI’s become Plato’s philosopher kings?


Making the right decisions in a complex, highly interconnected world requires superhuman abilities, let alone strong moral fiber. Big Data and AI will help us solve for global challenges such as climate change, environmental degradation, food security, health – to mention a few. Big Data and AI will help us make our cities better places to live in. The opportunity is indeed great.

But, as I said before, technology is an ideology. The same machines that can help us built smarter cities can be used to manipulate citizens and enforce obedience to the diktats of an elite. It is already happening in China, where personal data are collected and processed, and citizens are given a positive credit score for “good behaviour” and a negative credit score for “bad behaviour”. Totalitarian ideologies will use AI to solidify their rule. AI is ideal for citizen surveillance and control.

But what about democracies? How should we use AI to increase – not decrease – freedom and liberty?

There has been surprisingly little thought given to this question so far. Maybe because we take our democracies for granted. We should not. Also maybe because we have allowed ourselves to conflate freedom to choose with freedom to choose what to buy. The big tech corporations – that thrive because of our democratic institutions – are making incredible amounts of money by harnessing our data through AI to make better consumers out of us. Consumerism, however, is not democracy; it’s just consumerism.

Last Man

In a Platonic Consumerist Republic the AIs decide what you read, what news you get, what you eat and where to eat, who you befriend and who you marry, how you entertain yourself. Because AIs know more about you than anyone, including yourself, they are much wiser than you. They simply know better. In this consumerist scenario AI is “augmenting” you because it enables you to make better choices, without the need to worry your head too much. You can just sit back, relax, and let the AI take care of everything. Just ask Alexa.

Augmentation sounds like a good deal, until you realise that every augmentation is also an amputation. Augmented by a car I do not need to use my legs anymore. Augmented by Alexa to keep my calendar in order I do not need to remember what I m supposed to do tomorrow. Just ask Alexa.

When AIs do everything for us, when we do not need to think, or take responsibility for our decisions, we become like children, we are infantilized. We live comfortable lives in apparent harmony, just doing what our smart overlords recommend we did. We become what Nietzsche described as the last men, and last women.

Ladies and gentlemen,

AI has been likened to electricity. And just like electricity AI is ushering a new industrial revolution, the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Electricity made all things come to life. AI is making all things intelligent. For an engineer this is an opportunity to design better systems to advance economic prosperity.

But something that will so profoundly change our world should not be viewed only through the lens of engineering and economics. Indeed, AI is a technology that needs to be deeply humanized – in order to be democratized – as soon as possible, to be transformed in our own image, lest it transforms us into something terrible. To humanize AI we need to come together across academic disciplines and walks of life and answer some age-old questions.

What does it mean to be human?

What should be our purpose?

What should we aspire to be in relation to ourselves, our families, our societies, our planet, the cosmos, the future?

These are questions that have tormented many big minds over many centuries, but in our present days of mindless entertainment and frivolous pastimes we seem to have become too cynical, or too lazy or lethargic to ask them.

It’s time to start asking those questions again, with renewed urgency.

Thank you