AI and Philosophy

Sabrina Lehner @ EPFL Extension School · 8 minutes

How AI may impact and change our role in the world

AI systems can be found in the smartphone in your pocket and are becoming increasingly important – and ever more powerful – in our day-to-day lives. It’s a theme we have previously explored in the article AI Is All Around Us. And in the article AI – Two Letters, Many Meanings, we clarified that these kinds of systems are also referred to as narrow AI.

Narrow AI systems are very specialized – hence they are very efficient in performing the tasks for which they are designed, easily outperforming humans in doing so. However, these systems fail to solve problems outside of their assigned functionality, and struggle to transfer knowledge from one field to another.

Creating a system to overcome this hurdle will require a thinking machine that can tackle abstraction and reasoning, in the same way (or even better than) humans do. Achieving this goal and realising the collective vision of the scientific community will result in artificial general intelligence – otherwise known as general AI.1 But we’re not there yet…

“My phone just died!” is a common expression used when your device runs out of battery. When we say this, of course, we know that the phone does not actually die in the same sense that a sentient2 being does. But it makes us aware of two essential things:

  1. Our tendencies to anthropomorphize3 non-human entities, in particular when we have a special connection to them and see them as extensions of our identities – as might happen with our phones.
  2. We only see the world from our human perspective, and so perceive everything that is happening around us in human categories.

We don’t yet know whether general AI can be created, or if our current approach can make a machine as intelligent as a human. However, we do know that such systems would have a significant impact on our lives – they could potentially perform better in our jobs, forcing us to reflect on our changing role in the world.

We might also have to rethink our way of interacting with AI systems that are as intelligent as us. If we assume that a smartphone could reason in the same (or even better) way as us, or was able to develop consciousness, wouldn’t we treat it more like a partner rather than a tool? Exclaiming “My phone just died!” because it fell into water could have a very different meaning than it has today.

Working on something so powerful that it could entirely change our role and position in the world comes with considerable responsibility. Primarily, this grapples with the potential risks of a general AI to the human race and the world overall. In this context, we are also faced with many new, emerging questions – which we will explore further in the next article, What Makes Us Unique As Humans?

The philosophy of artificial intelligence tries to raise awareness and initiate discussions regarding such questions. But first, let’s start with the basics.

What is philosophy?

In ancient Greece, a philosopher (or philosophos) was seen as “a lover of wisdom”. Humans hold an innate thirst for knowledge – we love to study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, existence, the meaning of life, our role in the world, and our relationship to the world we live in.

Some fundamental questions we seek to answer include: what is a person? What is truth? Do we have free will? Do we have a mind? And how is the mind related to the body?

How we approach finding answers to these questions is what we call philosophy. These philosophical questions are mainly centered around humans, hence when we talk about machines and AI systems, they don’t seem to resonate.

What does AI have to do with philosophy?

AI is dramatically changing our everyday lives and its importance will increase massively in the coming years. We cannot ignore the fact that AI plays an increasingly important role in the world we live in. Consequently, AI also impacts our current understanding of our position in the world, forcing us to revisit key philosophical questions in relation to our role in society.

We will look at the impact of AI on the changing nature of our place in the world, our relationship to AI, and how it could develop.

Why is AI impacting our role in the world?

Narrow AI already has a massive impact on how we perceive our role in the world. Consider the way AI-powered marketing campaigns can shape your opinion subconsciously by diverting your attention or directing your fears. Powerful, isn’t it?

While it can be beneficial for consumers to get personalized recommendations for products, there is a negative side effect: it can leave us thinking that we only count as “someone” if we make that purchase.

Another field where narrow AI – and to an even greater extent general AI – can and will change our role is the world of work. If artificial intelligence can do our job, perhaps better or more efficiently than us, we might end up facing a fundamental question: what is the meaning of our life on Earth? Would it really be so bad if an AI takes our current job away and gives us more free time to engage with our passions and more creative endeavours in return?

What is the impact on our relationship to AI?

We must also consider our relationship with AI, which is highly dependent on our intentions for creating AI-powered machines in the first place. Do we just want tools like autonomous vehicles to help us in our daily lives? Or do we want to create something that acts like a partner and another (sentient) being?

In both scenarios, it is crucial to think about philosophical questions. Can a machine develop consciousness? Does a machine have free will? We must also consider the implications if we answer “yes” to such questions – if an AI system develops consciousness and has free will, can we treat it as a “servant”, or would that be considered slavery?

Depending on how we answer such philosophical queries, it could have massive implications for answering further questions of ethics and morals.

What is the impact on the role of AI in the world?

If we want to create a functioning partner using AI, what does it mean for the role of AI in the world? If that partner was to be given equal responsibilities, should it not also share equal rights and be judged by the same values?

Creating life is not a new concept. There are numerous myths and stories detailing our fascination with creating machines and bringing them to life. Undoubtedly the most famous is Frankenstein’s monster 4, and you may also be familiar with the golem narratives from Jewish folklore. A golem is a mythical creature made out of clay, which is brought to life by inserting a capsule containing some magic formula into its mouth. This procedure echoes the concept of programming: doing some “magic” coding and “inserting” it into a machine.

If we look at the main driver for creating something new, we can see that it is always to make a tool that helps humans to overcome restrictions. This hasn’t changed, so you might wonder why those philosophical questions have not been asked before – and why we are considering them now.

We are now at a point where creating something like “new life” may no longer be just something out of a science fiction story. Using AI, we might be capable of creating something that is not only a tool, but can be seen as a partner. This power comes with responsibilities, so we must be prepared for the implications and threat to the status quo when machines develop consciousness and learn to make their own decisions.

After all, if we take our cue from science fiction, we don’t want to suffer the dubious fate of being destroyed by our own creation.

Conclusion

Narrow AI is a powerful tool that uses data and algorithms to derive new insights. In recent years, AI has often been shown to be more efficient at doing particular tasks than humans. However, narrow AI is very specialized and is unable to function without data. We are not yet at a point of general AI, where the AI itself might be able to gather data independently or create new insights by itself. But we are moving towards that direction, hence the need to consider the philosophical aspects of AI.

AI systems are already drastically changing our lives, a trend that is set to continue long into the future. It will not just have an impact on how we interact with AI, but we may also be confronted with rethinking our position in the world and the meaning of our lives.

We cannot allow ourselves to create something this powerful without considering the consequences. Thus it is also essential to discuss the fear of AI – from taking our jobs and causing mass unemployment, to potentially becoming more intelligent than humans. Are we enabling a level of “superintelligence” that would perceive us a threat and consequently eliminate us? That is a question posed in science fiction with the Terminator films, which raises fears that will be addressed in future articles.

We can also view AI as a great opportunity for humanity. It’s human nature to fear something that we do not understand, so education is key. Knowing what’s happening in the field of AI allows us to enter the discussion and ask the right questions, while also helping us identify the philosophical aspects of AI and where we need to raise awareness.

AI comes with great power. Unfounded fears of how that power could be used should not hinder its innovation.

  1. For a more detailed description of narrow and general AI, please see the article AI – Two Letters, Many Meanings

  2. A sentient being is a being that is able to experience feelings such as joy and pain. Humans and animals are sentient beings, for example. 

  3. Anthropomorphism describes the fact that we humans tend to attribute human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. 

  4. In Mary Shelley’s 1818 book “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, a young scientist called Victor Frankenstein creates a sentient being in an unorthodox scientific experiment. 

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What Makes Us Unique As Humans?