The challenging balance between AI, modernity and free will

Jovan Kurbalija. Source: DiploFoundation.

With artificial intelligence (AI) becoming a reality and algorithms entering our lives and our bodies, humanity faces challenges like never before. Are we preparing for a bright technological future or are we simply losing control?

Who better than an expert to help us reflect on the path we have taken and the AI-driven tools we’ve contributed to shaping the future. Jovan Kurbalija, executive director of the DiploFoundation and director of the Geneva Internet Platform, shares his thoughts and helps us connect with our humanity.

Geneva Solutions: What do the significant developments in technology, and AI in particular, question?

Jovan Kurbalija: As our society faces unprecedented changes, the fundamental balance between modernity and humanity is challenged. Modernity and humanity are two pillars of the Enlightenment era, and have shaped our world to this day.

Modernity is based on rationality and human attempt to optimize life and interaction with nature. Modernity is about efficiency and utility, about science and technology.

Humanity, the other pillar of Enlightenment, puts humans in the center of society. Human life, dignity and realisation of our potentials are the core values of humanity.  Ultimately, it is about our right to make personal, economic, and political choices.

These two pillars have been working quite synchronically for a long time. But in the past 10 years, modernity has started to encapsulate humanity through AI around one core feature defining us as human beings: freedom of choice in personal, political and economic life.

GS: How is this happening?

JK: AI masters optimization and rationality. AI knows us much better than we know ourselves. Therefore, we’re faced with a situation where our freedom of choice, which includes our irrationality and imperfection, is questioned. Let’s take an example. You have the possibility to find the ideal partner via online platforms. AI can give you ‘optimal’ suggestions based on knowing you and your potential partners.  Even if you prefer to meet your partner in clubs and cafes, it will still be tempting to rely on AI for better suggestions

As our space for choices will shrink,  modernity - via science and technology - will encapsulate humanity. We are losing the battle on the space of choice. Ultimately, the question is: how will the encapsulating effect of modernity affect humanity and remove us from this small space of imperfection, creativity and consciousness.

GS: How come the balance between modernity and humanity has changed?

JK: Modernity was always an external tool. It was a hammer, a car, a bicycle. Your bicycle does not tell you where to go. New - AI driven tools - are much more than a simple tool. They shape our cognition and ultimately society. Free will can be automated.

What defines us in the tradition of Nietzsche and to some extent Kierkegaard, is this element of imperfection. The question is: how can we restore it? I am not extremely optimistic, because this idea of rationality, utility and optimization is so deeply rooted in our psyche and personal lives, that reversing it is complicated.

GS: What would be a possible solution to this problem?

JK: There are three paths to explore, to not become enslaved. The first is to understand AI better. We have, for example, just launched an experiment with AI-generated diplomatic speeches. The idea is to compare human rationality with AI probability and logic.

The second solution is to develop a structure with a form of augmented intelligence, where we remain in charge but rely on AI. Anything from analyzing email patterns to Geneva’s impact on global politics. And finally, and probably the most important element, is to create the right to be imperfect, a space where we can be humanly irrational.

It will help us get a better grasp on machine learning, which we can then use for AI governance. It is useful for future research. It is interesting to do this as AI then becomes a mirror. We cannot resolve this on an individual level, because individually we cannot go against rational society. But as a whole and with a social contract, we could agree that sometimes other values are more important than pure utility. It is a very difficult discussion because we may have to revisit some pillars of  Enlightenment, including our culture and arts.

GS: Why is it difficult for society to consider human beings as imperfect?

JK: Precisely because the whole society is constructed on utility. You’re not allowed to show emotions , you are always guided by a utilitarian logic serving a purpose.

We’ll have to wait for the new generation to change paradigm, when the conceptual rebooting has taken place. Young people are intuitively searching for a solution. Opportunity will be given to them to ask the right questions. They will make sure that AI is kept under control and embrace the human imperfection.

Over the past few centuries, modernity and humanity reinforced each other in a virtuous cycle of sorts. We need to avoid the autoimmune trap where modernity harms our core humanity and find new ways where modernity and humanity continue to reinforce each other.

GS: What is the role of Geneva?

JK: Throughout history Geneva has played a key role in the interplay between modernity and humanity. ICRC was established to reduce human suffering caused by, at that time, new military technology. If we go through the origins of most of the Geneva-based international organizations we will see this interplay also around labour, health, trade and other policy issues. Thus, Geneva has the experience and expertise to contribute - and even lead - the emerging debate on the future of technology and society.