Cross-cultural dialogue at heart of Riyadh Philosophy Conference
Event’s 2nd edition asked questions surrounding space exploration and impact on humanity
Updated 05 December 2022
Rebecca Anne Proctor
RIYADH: Over the course of three days, scientists, writers, historians, professors and philosophers from around the world gathered at the King Fahd National Library in Riyadh to discuss the major issues affecting humanity today.
The second edition of the conference, which concluded on Dec. 3, was dedicated to the theme of “Knowledge and Exploration: Space, Time and Humanity.”
A total of 71 speakers attended from more than 19 countries around the world, including the US, UK, UAE, Mexico, Italy, Singapore, Italy, Germany and Egypt, making the conference a diverse platform to discuss ideas and topics pertinent to our world today. Attendees numbered around 2,700.
“A conference such as this has cross-cultural dialogue at its heart. Inviting and welcoming leading philosophers from all over the world is not a one-way thing,” Dr. Mohammed Hasan Alwan, CEO of the Literature, Publishing & Translation Commission, told Arab News. “It is, instead, a two-way dialogue, with international experts joining their Saudi and regional colleagues in a spirit of intellectual exploration that is far more profound and far-reaching because it is done in a spirit of partnership.”
This year’s conference continues the efforts of last year’s event, which was the first of its kind to take place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “Our conference has been bigger and more ambitious in many ways,” added Alwan.
The conference was established, he said, “because we believe in philosophy and its relevance in our world.”
The theme of the conference was highly topical to ongoing debates surrounding space exploration.
“The conference theme is, to coin a science fiction phrase, ‘going boldly where few conferences have gone before,” said Alwan. “We chose a theme that was challenging, and yet which also showed just how philosophical thinking is absolutely vital for humanity, because of its ability to map out entirely new intellectual territory that relates to space exploration, to humanity’s potential extra-terrestrial activities.”
The topic of space exploration is also reflective of Saudi Arabia’s own plans. In September 2022, the Kingdom announced that it had launched a new astronaut program. Its first journey, set for 2023, will carry a female Saudi astronaut, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
“What has been impressive is the ability to speak to a diverse and large population here that you don’t find in academic conferences; attendees this year included even investment bankers and people working in the oil industry,” Nicolas de Warren, professor of philosophy at Penn State University in the US, who was attending the conference for the second time, told Arab News. “I was impressed again by the level of sophistication and questions from the diverse audience.”
De Warren chaired a panel titled “Exploring Space and Time Today.” His research looks at the impact of science fiction literature which, as he says, “imagines not only the exploration of space but what it would mean to enter into contact with other life forms or alien civilizations. It is what is called first contact narratives.”
Such ideas raise the fundamental philosophical question of if we as a species are alone in the universe? Are there other life forms? How do we know if there are other life forms? Why has there been no contact with these other life forms? And what would it really represent if, indeed, one day, there was the discovery that there are other intelligent life forms and civilizations?
De Warren discussed such questions in his panel but went a step further. According to his thesis, these questions do not really concern aliens but ourselves.
“It has to do with the way in which we project our planetary fears onto some imaginary alien to sublimate them,” he said. “From that perspective, it’s not fortuitous that during the 1950s and 1960s, one of the dominant genres of science fiction literature and films was invasion narratives — Martians are coming, and so on. That reflects the sort of sublimation one found during the Cold War.”
Apart from delving into pressing issues involving our world today and fostering cross-cultural dialogue, the conference also had a pedagogical aspect.
A pavilion area with workshops for children called Philosophers of Tomorrow, a Philosophical Camp for philosophical dialogue, and a debating competition for trained teams of college students called Reading Between the Lines Competition underlined the importance of fostering philosophy inquiry and thought within educational platforms, schools and communities in the Kingdom.
“We’ve done more than before to encourage children and young people to participate in the conference through a Philosopher’s Cafe, which has space for members of the audience to discuss philosophical topics with the conference’s speakers,” added Alwan.
This year the conference partnered with more organizations, ranging from international universities, the International Federation of Philosophical Societies, as well as the Saudi Space Commission, and several Saudi organizations engaged in promoting philosophical thinking, such as Baseera, the Saudi Center of Philosophy and Ethics, Mekal Philosophy Club and the Saudi Philosophy Association.
“We abstract the tools that philosophers use and try to invite teachers to apply those tools in their curriculum,” said Dalia Toonsi, educational consultant, founder and general manager of Baseera Educational Consultancy. Baseera, an institute that trains teachers to implement dialogical and philosophical teaching as well as learning methods into the curriculum of Saudi schools, was taking part in the event for the second time.
“People in the Arab world generally don’t think philosophy is an interesting subject,” said Toonsi. Baseera’s work emphasizes the importance of philosophical inquiry in schools.
Toonsi said: “Tools from philosophy entail critical thinking, examining assumptions, deduction and reduction, and inquiry and also caring thinking, related more to children, which gives children the ability to open their minds to different opinions related to philosophical inquiry.”
Growth in arms trade stunted by supply issues: report
The growth was severely impacted by widespread supply chain issues
Companies in the US continue to dominate global arms production
Updated 05 December 2022
STOCKHOLM: Sales of arms and military services grew in 2021, researchers said Monday, but were limited by worldwide supply issues related to the pandemic, with the war in Ukraine increasing demand while worsening supply difficulties.
The top 100 arms companies sold weapons and related services totalling $592 billion in 2021, 1.9-percent more than the year before, said the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
However the growth was severely impacted by widespread supply chain issues.
“The lasting impact of the pandemic is really starting to show in arms companies,” Nan Tian, a senior researcher at SIPRI, told AFP.
Disruptions from both labor shortages and difficulties in sourcing raw materials were “slowing down the companies’ ability to produce weapons systems and deliver them on time.
“So what we see really is a potentially slower increase to what many would have expected in arms sales in 2021,” Tian said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also expected to worsen supply chain issues, in part “because Russia is a major supplier of raw materials used in arms production,” said the report’s authors.
But the war has at the same time increased demand.
“Definitely demand will increase in the coming years,” Tian said.
By how much was at the same time harder to gauge, Tian said pointing to two factors that would impact demand.
Firstly, countries that have sent weapons to Ukraine to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars will be looking to replenish stockpiles.
Secondly, the worsening security environment means “countries are looking to procure more weapons.”
With the supply crunch expected to worsen, it could hamper these efforts, the authors noted.
Companies in the US continue to dominate global arms production, accounting for over half, $299 billion, of global sales and 40 of the top companies.
At the same time, the region was the only one to see a drop in sales: 0.9 percent down on the 2020 figures.
Among the top five companies — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics — only Raytheon recorded an increase in sales.
Meanwhile, sales from the eight largest Chinese arms companies rose 6.3 percent to $109 billion in 2021.
European companies took 27 of the spots on the top 100, with combined sales of $123 billion, up 4.2 percent compared to 2020.
The report also noted a trend of private equity firms buying up arms companies, something the authors said had become increasingly apparent over the last three or four years.
This trend threatens to make the arms industry more opaque and therefore harder to track, Tian said, “because private equity firms will buy these companies and then essentially not produce any more financial records.”
Apple and Amazon resume advertising on Twitter — reports
Updated 05 December 2022
Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc. are planning to resume advertising on Twitter, according to media reports on Saturday.
The developments follow an email sent by Twitter on Thursday to advertising agencies offering advertisers incentives to increase their spending on the platform, an effort to jump-start its business after Elon Musk’s takeover prompted many companies to pull back.
Twitter billed the offer as the “biggest advertiser incentive ever on Twitter,” according to the email reviewed by Reuters. US advertisers who book $500,000 in incremental spending will qualify to have their spending matched with a “100 percent value add,” up to a $1 million cap, the email said.
On Saturday, a Platformer News reporter tweeted that Amazon is planning to resume advertising on Twitter at about $100 million a year, pending some security tweaks to the company’s ads platform.
However, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters that Amazon had never stopped advertising on Twitter.
Separately, during a Twitter Spaces conversation, Musk announced that Apple is the largest advertiser on Twitter and has “fully resumed” advertising on the platform, according to a Bloomberg report.
Musk’s first month as Twitter’s owner has included a slashing of staff including employees who work on content moderation and incidents of spammers impersonating major public companies, which has spooked the advertising industry.
Many companies from General Mills Inc. to luxury automaker Audi of America stopped or paused advertising on Twitter since the acquisition, and Musk said in November that the company had seen a “massive” drop in revenue.
Apple and Twitter did not immediately respond to Reuters request for comment on the matter.
As chatbot sophistication grows, AI debate intensifies
OpenAI, cofounded in 2015 in San Francisco by billionaire tech mogul Elon Musk, who left the business in 2018, received $1 billion from Microsoft in 2019
Updated 05 December 2022
SAN FRANCISCO: California start-up OpenAI has released a chatbot capable of answering a variety of questions, but its impressive performance has reopened the debate on the risks linked to artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.
The conversations with ChatGPT, posted on Twitter by fascinated users, show a kind of omniscient machine, capable of explaining scientific concepts and writing scenes for a play, university dissertations or even functional lines of computer code.
“Its answer to the question ‘what to do if someone has a heart attack’ was incredibly clear and relevant,” Claude de Loupy, head of Syllabs, a French company specialized in automatic text generation, told AFP.
“When you start asking very specific questions, ChatGPT’s response can be off the mark,” but its overall performance remains “really impressive,” with a “high linguistic level,” he said.
OpenAI, cofounded in 2015 in San Francisco by billionaire tech mogul Elon Musk, who left the business in 2018, received $1 billion from Microsoft in 2019.
The start-up is best known for its automated creation software: GPT-3 for text generation and DALL- E for image generation.
ChatGPT is able to ask its interlocutor for details, and has fewer strange responses than GPT-3, which, in spite of its prowess, sometimes spits out absurd results, said De Loupy.
“A few years ago chatbots had the vocabulary of a dictionary and the memory of a goldfish,” said Sean McGregor, a researcher who runs a database of AI-related incidents.
“Chatbots are getting much better at the ‘history problem’ where they act in a manner consistent with the history of queries and responses. The chatbots have graduated from goldfish status.”
Like other programs relying on deep learning, mimicking neural activity, ChatGPT has one major weakness: “it does not have access to meaning,” says De Loupy.
The software cannot justify its choices, such as explain why its picked the words that make up its responses.
AI technologies able to communicate are, nevertheless, increasingly able to give an impression of thought.
Researchers at Facebook-parent Meta recently developed a computer program dubbed Cicero, after the Roman statesman.
The software has proven proficient at the board game Diplomacy, which requires negotiation skills.
“If it doesn’t talk like a real person — showing empathy, building relationships, and speaking knowledgeably about the game — it won’t find other players willing to work with it,” Meta said in research findings.
In October, Character.ai, a start-up founded by former Google engineers, put an experimental chatbot online that can adopt any personality.
Users create characters based on a brief description and can then “chat” with a fake Sherlock Holmes, Socrates or Donald Trump.
This level of sophistication both fascinates and worries some observers, who voice concern these technologies could be misused to trick people, by spreading false information or by creating increasingly credible scams.
What does ChatGPT think of these hazards?
“There are potential dangers in building highly sophisticated chatbots, particularly if they are designed to be indistinguishable from humans in their language and behavior,” the chatbot told AFP.
Some businesses are putting safeguards in place to avoid abuse of their technologies.
On its welcome page, OpenAI lays out disclaimers, saying the chatbot “may occasionally generate incorrect information” or “produce harmful instructions or biased content.”
And ChatGPT refuses to take sides.
“OpenAI made it incredibly difficult to get the model to express opinions on things,” McGregor said.
Once, McGregor asked the chatbot to write a poem about an ethical issue.
“I am just a machine, A tool for you to use, I do not have the power to choose, or to refuse. I cannot weigh the options, I cannot judge what’s right, I cannot make a decision On this fateful night,” it replied.
On Saturday, OpenAI cofounder and CEO Sam Altman took to Twitter, musing on the debates surrounding AI.
“Interesting watching people start to debate whether powerful AI systems should behave in the way users want or their creators intend,” he wrote.
“The question of whose values we align these systems to will be one of the most important debates society ever has.”