Technology is neutral — the ways in which we use it are not

Technology is neutral — the ways in which we use it are not

Bina48 was modeled on a real person, Bina Aspen. (Twitter: @iBina48)

It is not often that I start my day in the company of a humanoid robot.

Bina48 was modeled on a real person, Bina Aspen, and more than a hundred hours of her memories, feelings and beliefs were compiled and used to program the automated doppelganger. The end result is a humanoid robot — or at least, the bust-like head and shoulders of one — that is capable of engaging in meaningful conversation with humans. For example, she shared an emotional account of the effect of the Vietnam War on her brother’s personality after he returned home from the killing fields.

Is Bina48 a sign of what we can expect from artificial intelligence in the future? Quite probably, and with ever-increasing levels of sophistication.

A chat with Bina48 was only one of many highlights at the futuristic Brave New World conference in the city of Leiden in the Netherlands. The event is the brainchild of Alexander Mouret, a modern renaissance man who also runs the highly respected Leiden International Film Festival.

This was the second year in a row that I have attended the conference, which takes its name from the novel published in 1932 by Aldous Huxley. His influential sci-fi fantasy generated both horror and fascination with its vision of a future in which humans live in carefully controlled societies achieved through reproductive technology and psychological manipulation.

The novel, like the conference, is a mind-blowing, intense exercise in peeking into the future. They both take us on a journey with much optimism about our ability to improve the human condition through the use of technology, combined with a sense of sheer horror at the prospect of the same technology being used to alter and control humanity in many ways. Some of these we cannot predict, and some might one day make us long for our imperfections if the alternative means becoming subordinated to scientific advances that judge our imperfections for us.

There is nothing new about human interference — more accurately, obsession — with mortality and immortality, with perfecting ourselves as human beings in terms of our intelligence, our health, our self-image and our aesthetics. What is both fascinating and terrifying is that new technologies are edging ever closer to providing “solutions” to many of the challenges faced by society, while provoking complex moral and ethical dilemmas that might raise questions about whether we should even consider using them.

Take, for instance, the reproductive process. Science already assists those who cannot have children in the traditional way, through in vitro fertilization for example. Initially, IVF met with much resistance. It was viewed by many, for religious and/or moral reasons, as unwelcome intervention: interference with the laws of God or of nature, depending on one’s belief system.

More than 40 years after it was introduced, many millions of parents have benefited from IVF technology but is humanity ready for further developments: artificial wombs, for example? Will we have an obligation, moral or otherwise, to raise our children and look after their well-being in a traditional way if we do not bring them into the world in a traditional way?

AI offers some of the greatest opportunities to change the course of humanity but with this change, in a Hegelian sense, lies the end of society as we know it.

Yossi Mekelberg

This could forever change the relationship between the sexes. If one of the most crucial aspects of this relationship is reproduction and ensuring the health, education and happiness of our offspring, will it one day be left to technology to deal with this issue? What will parenthood mean in an age of artificial wombs?

This is just one example of scientific advancements that bring with them acute moral dilemmas, some of which were presented by scientists, philosophers and artists to more than 200 socio-tech enthusiasts during the two-day Brave New World conference. Another was the effect technology can have by “hacking” our brains and conditioning our behavior to the benefit of governments, commercial enterprises and other organizations. Their methods influence our thinking through relentless interaction with our brains as they constantly send messages that condition us and influence what we think and feel, and consequently our preferences and behavior. This is followed up by tracking us to measure the success of such conditioning, and further hacking to enhance the phenomenon.

As is typical at these kinds of events, it was the term artificial intelligence that surrounded the audience and speakers in the greatest aura of mysticism. AI offers some of the greatest opportunities to change the course of humanity but with this change, in a Hegelian sense, lies the end of society as we know it.

On the one hand, AI offers the potential to allow us to live forever, healthily and happily (maybe), by enabling us to replicate ourselves and our loved ones. One day, AI might autonomously do for us all the things we do not like doing, or are not very good at — even fight our wars for us.

However, if this happens, what will remain of humans and humanity? Are we to be altered so radically that we become a completely different species? And if we are creating AI that is more capable than we are, will we be subordinate to it? At the same time, superhuman robots might develop feelings, such as empathy, compassion or aggression; otherwise they would remain mere machines.

Humans have intervened in nature throughout history but not with the intensity, breadth and pace of recent times, nor in such a disruptive way. Prof. Peter-Paul Verbeek of the University of Twente calls the emerging new-age global society “Society 5.0,” or the super-smart society. This has evolved from the information revolution, which was itself preceded by the industrial revolution, the agrarian revolution, and the hunting societies before then.

In the years and decades to come, the moral, ethical and legal implications of scientific developments will be debated and evaluated. Questions will be asked about how human rights are going to be protected, but if robots, the manifestation of AI, are given the ability to feel joy and suffer “pain,” will they also be entitled to rights? If so, will these be human or robot rights?

There is one thing on which we can all agree: we are stepping into the unknown with excitement and expectation, but also trepidation. Humanity is entering an era that is more revolutionary than evolutionary, and only if science works in close cooperation with ethics can we avoid altering ourselves beyond recognition, and not necessarily for the better.

• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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