Technology, AI and ethics.

The age of painters and poets


The age of painters and poets

by Alexander Görlach

What will we do when machines take over our jobs? It is certainly a question of how to spend our time but also of how to gain and maintain self-esteem and identity. We may not be aware of the fact that our societies since the dawn of time run on narratives of work. That is why we need to dive into a new history of purpose for mankind in the age of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

No doubt, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will shatter our certainties and customs, the things we take for granted, the same way its three predecessors did. What has happened over a quarter-century as globalisation teamed up some fifteen years ago with digitalisation: speaking today about the ubiquity of goods, finance, people and information is commonplace and is embodied in the smartphone that allows us to basically consume everything one might need for everyday life. These smartphones with their services such as those provided by Google and Facebook not only allow the collection and storage of a multitude of information, unimaginable for our ancestors, but also allow us to work with them and use them for an exponential acceleration of creating businesses and new technologies.

Data mining leads to shopping recommendations on Amazon and to echo chambers and opinion silos on Facebook. Large amounts of data, such as those available to Google, open up new fields of research in fields such as the health sector. New players will triumph and old ones will go out of business. What has not been highlighted enough so far, however, is the consequence the rise of machine learning and other sorts of artificial intelligence may have on societies. This holds especially true when it comes to the future of work in a world where machines may do a great chunk of it, be it manually or intellectually. Work that we humans have been used to doing since the dawn of time.

Western societies are very much shaped by the idea of a work ethic, the Protestant ideals of being busy in this world. There is no ethic of leisure and no place for pleasure within the Western narrative of success and hard work. This ideal, some would say ideology, has reached out far beyond the frontiers of Christendom and is definitely not just a Western concept. Some may detect traces of these ideals appearing independently in contemporary China, which is anything but Christian. Yet the Confucian narrative that shapes this region of the earth is built on meritocracy and the ideal path of man is one of hardship and lifelong learning. It is not all that different from what we know in the West.

The narrative of progress and success, the American “from rags to riches”, has entrenched itself in a very secular sense in most people’s minds in the contemporary world. Therefore, if we really seek to understand the battles we may be fighting soon about the future of our societies, the place of man in the world of tomorrow, we may have to look very closely at this narrative.

Self-worth is not only embodied in a monthly pay-cheque but also, maybe most importantly, in the passed-down set of beliefs about the essence of our human endeavors as an animal laborans. There is no doubt that these beliefs have been questioned, attacked and demeaned over the course of the last two hundred years. After the so-called three humiliations of modernity, man had to endure the theories of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. The Fourth Industrial Revolution may also have the next humiliation in store for him. Copernicus exiled man from the centre of the universe. Darwin deprived him of being the pride of creation. And Freud finally taught him that he does not even have dominion in the house of his own mind. With the dawn of artificial intelligence, the belief of man that he participates in the divine essence of God through his intelligence and creativity (a word clearly alluding to the Creator), may be shattered.

What to do? As the usual business is to look into business opportunities and legal regulation when it comes to technological innovation, this essay tries to make the case for a calm look into the narratives that define and confine us: our identity as working human beings, our ability to cope and deal with change or longing for persistency.

The Terminator, as the epitome of what the world would become if machines have the capacity to run the place. What is seen as a fictitious movie overseas is taken at face value in Europe.

As a first step into this endeavour, it shall be rewarding to distinguish between an US-American perspective on the subject matter and a continental Western-European one. As the industrial revolutions of the past originated in this part of the world, the fourth and latest version of this innovation is also deeply connected with this cultural hemisphere.

In his book “America” French philosopher Jean Baudrillard sums up what, according to him, is the difference between the United States of America and Europe. The Old World, he argues, is bound to history. The New World, on the contrary, bows to Utopia. Both cultural spheres therefore follow different paths, form different patterns while approaching and understanding reality. If you live in a constant future, progress is always the present time. If history is your reference point, progress is not your benchmark but rather persistence or conclusiveness become the ideals that embody the values by which society runs. There is no other field where this difference in attitude and Weltanschauung, history versus utopia, has been more out in the open than in the different attitude towards development and technological progress. In Baudrillard’s words:

“We criticise Americans for not being able to either analyse or conceptualise. But this is a wrong-headed critique. It is we who imagine that everything culminates in transcendence, and that nothing exists which has not been conceptualised. Not only do they care little for such a view, but their perspective is the very opposite: it is not conceptualising reality, but realising concepts and materialising ideas, that interests them. (…) Everything that has been dreamt on this side of the Atlantic has a chance of being realised on the other. They build the real out of ideas. We transform the real into ideas or into ideology. Here in America only what is produced or manifested has meaning; for us in Europe only what can be thought or concealed has meaning.”

That is the division of labour between Europe and the United States even today (Baudrillard’s book was published in 1986), when it comes to the next wave of technological innovation: in Europe they worry about the outcomes of machine learning and artificial intelligence, in America they find and finance the companies that invent the algorithms and build the robots. In the US they are creating progress that Europeans would be sceptical about, out of principle and a weakness for scepticism. As a matter of fact, most newspaper and magazine articles about artificial intelligence prove that by carrying the face of Arnold Schwarzenegger on their cover: The Terminator, as the epitome of what the world would become if machines have the capacity to run the place. What is seen as a fictitious movie overseas is taken at face value in Europe.

There is no doubt that there are two different velocities nowadays within the development of artificial intelligence and its agencies: there are the big companies that emerged from Silicon Valley’s long-standing effort to become the world leader in technology: Google, Facebook, all American companies that gained a monopoly in the field of data mining. Also, Amazon in Seattle plays a
decisive role. Or Boston is a hotbed as well, where a lot is going on in the field of robotics. So, the US has taken off while Europe is bewildered.

Once in a conversation with Andreas von Bechtolsheim, founder of Sun Microsystems and one of the first investors in Google, he emphasised the fact that by the time he was a student, in the late seventies of the last century, Germany had already been left behind by the developments and successes in computer sciences in the United States. Today a billionaire, he made clear in our conversation that the daring and entrepreneurial spirit in the New World was unparalleled on the other side of the Atlantic. He told the story of when he first met the founders of Google, back then unknowns, on a patio for a chat and shortly after that became Google’s first investor, putting a hundred thousand dollars into their new venture. In return he was given one per cent of the new company, today worth a fortune.

But that is only half the story: there is not just a difference in attitude, aptitude and readiness to assume risk when it comes to computer sciences, machine learning and artificial intelligence. There are also different mindsets and attitudes in play, regardless of which side of the Atlantic you live on. There seems to be a gulf of the same size between the sciences and the humanities. To understand and adapt to the seriousness of the changes our society is going through, it is crucial to overcome this divide. We cannot evaluate our cultural narratives of work and identity without cross-disciplinary thinking.

Looking into this, one will find out that the divide goes way back, to the 19th century in England and even before, as C.P. Snow sets out in his lecture “The Two Cultures”. In this lecture, delivered in Oxford in 1959, the British scientist and novelist criticises the silos in academia that have been established in the institutions of his own country, Oxford and Cambridge, with the rise of sciences forever connected to the name Newton. In the age of industrialisation, the snobbishness of the liberal arts representatives has taken on new forms, that Snow labels quite frankly as ignorance. He states:

“The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment.”

Europe, being focused on history, is according to Baudrillard haunted by its need for concepts and metaphysics. The liberal arts, the epitome of the European ideal of education and formation, are also striving for the existential and the defining. Because of that, states Snow, the liberal arts lack the capacity to comprehend what is happening outside College doors and beyond their secure walls.

To fully understand the changes at hand, we do need sciences and humanities to work together. Social sciences seem to be a link between the two as it brings together quantitative research with qualitative interpretation. Rightfully so, because it is all about hermeneutics, ageneric discipline of philosophy: a theory of understanding and interpreting. Usually this theory is only to be applied to texts. It is also a method of interpreting texts that speak to us from a different era or another cultural framework. In a time where algorithms define our reality, it is clearly necessary to develop a new hermeneutic translation model from the language of computer science into the language of the humanities and vice versa. As artificial intelligence mimics human behaviour, with all its biases, it renders it indispensable that the two not only understand each other but create something like a new framework of interpretation and application. This is necessary above all for one simple reason.

As artificial intelligence mimics human behaviour, with all its biases, it renders it indispensable that the two not only understand each other but create something like a new framework of interpretation and application.

Societies run on narratives, on parables, stories, that serve as presuppositions, as convictions that underlie most of a society’s discourse. Most of these narratives have to be detected in careful and diligent research by the social sciences, for those surveyed may not even consciously be aware of sharing certain narratives with other members of their group. The American Dream is one of those narratives, embodied in the phrase “from rags to riches”. Also, the narrative of a Christian Europe and the Occident. Narratives define groups and help their members to cope with the contingency of our human lives. Believing, behaving and belonging are the driving forces of all human collectives, be it a tribe or an industrialised society.

One of the most prevalent narratives we share in the Western world is the one of work. And this narrative will be the one that will be challenged, questioned and finally destroyed by the achievements of machine learning and artificial intelligence. As early as in the story about the garden of Eden, we learn that man works. Even before man was sentenced to work as punishment for his sin (physical labour experienced as a hardship and burden) he still worked in paradise, but for pleasure. Theologians depict here the essence of work: it is not the “by the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:19), the money making of the capitalist age. It is, to the contrary, work as self-expression, as a part of a person’s identity. Moreover, it defines mankind’s pride, the possibility of creating and by doing so participating. We already had this in the glorious, divine maker’s process of creating.

In the Protestant branch of Christianity, labour and the fixation on work has taken on the leading role in ethics. A successful person is heralded as one favoured by God. Calvin taught this. The Puritans believed it – and brought this belief in the belly of the Mayflower to the shores of the New World. In today’s Cambridge, at Harvard University, a place founded by the Puritans where I had the pleasure of being a visiting scholar and fellow, you could still see how much this Protestant work ethic, as Max Weber famously called it, prevails in a completely secular way.

It is an environment in which every conversation starts with saying how busy one is. A meeting for a coffee consists of walking together to the coffee shop, waiting together in line and then dashing back to your desks. By doing this you make sure of not missing out on any tiny bit of work, and finally, when the day comes to an end, you can be satisfied that you did not waste even one minute in an inefficient, ungodly way. Harvard is an environment where the carbonic acid in the water is perceived as utterly hedonistic. It stunned me, a lousy son of the Una Sancta, a proud European moreover, how much one can be consumed by the fetish of work and busyness. It puzzles me how US-Americans live with six vacation days a year, with nine the maximum, yet are considered lazy prats if they really manage to take all of them.

Now you get what I am trying to say here. Imagine a place like Harvard (or the United States as a whole, for that matter), deprived of the solace of believing, behaving and belonging according to the narrative of the Protestant/Puritan work ethic. It would fall to pieces! Yet we already know that machine learning and artificial intelligence will not only impact the work force in factories. Automation will hit law firms, banks, hospitals and universities alike. It will cost jobs in all sectors. Banks like Goldman Sachs invest highly in new software that will make the work of hundreds of Harvard graduates in their laying batteries dispensable. When this happens, what will give us self-worth and pride? What will have us believing, behaving and belonging? And: what the heck are we going to do with all our free time?

Clearly, we will not all become painters or poets. But what will we be doing with that abundance of time? Yuval Harari, a great storyteller and historian (author of the bestselling books “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus”) recently laid out an answer to that question in an opinion piece for the British newspaper The Guardian:

“One answer might be computer games. Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the ‘real world’ outside. This, in fact, is a very old solution. For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games ‘religions’. What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? (…) If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).”

This idea is compelling in the sense that Harari has a point when he alludes to the human capacity, individual as much as collective, to engage in spaces and worlds that are not physically real. But would living in several realities only be keeping us busy or would it really reinvent man, giving him a new narrative of purpose and meaning? We should rather get our act together and discuss this before it is too late. “Indeed, the right time is now.” (2 Corinthians 6:2)

This essay is taken from Alex’ publication “Entering a New Era. The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Politics, The Economy and Society” that has been published by the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications.

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Alexander Görlach

Alexander Görlach is the editor in chief of He is a linguist and theologian who works on narratives of identity, politics, and religion, and liberal democracy, as well as secularism, pluralism, and cosmopolitanism. He was a visiting scholar to both Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Center for European Studies and a J. F. Kennedy Memorial Policy Fellow at that Center in the academic years 2014-2017. Alex is senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, a fellow at the Center for the Governance of Change at IE University in Madrid, a senior research associate at Cambridge University’s Institute on Religion and International Studies, a senior advisor to the Berggruen Institute, and a honorary professor of ethics and theology at Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany. Prior to his current engagement at Cambridge University Alex served as a fellow to the Center for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). In the academic year 2017-2018, he was also invited as a visiting scholar to universities in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In East Asia Alex looked into the democracies of the region and how the cope with the rise of China. One narrative of identity he is particularly researching on is the narrative of work. Given the rise of AI, algorithms and an increasing automatization it is crucial for him to reassess how individuals and societies perceive work and its impact on self-worth and identity. Alex is an op-ed contributor to The New York Times and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, among others. He is also the founder of the debate-magazine The European and served as its editor-in-chief from 2009 until 2015. Today he also publishes the initiative

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