SOCIETY | Jul 27, 2017

Humanistic culture is the anchor of digital transformation

In a world that is increasingly dominated by algorithms, how can we preserve the centrality of individuals?

“Beauty will save the world”
(Fedor Dostoevskij)

In a previous article I introduced the theme of digital ethics as a prerequisite to managing the growing interactions between people, activities and objects. Choices will have to be made that can only be supported by an adequate level of transparency in order to identify ways to establish effective open and public control. I also stated that trust is the precondition for progress and that in the digital world, where total security and privacy is impossible to obtain, it will be necessary to identify the level of trust that each individual will deem acceptable.

Choices will have to be made that can only be supported by an adequate level of transparency in order to identify ways to establish effective open and public control.

Choosing may also even mean compromising and, in critical situations, it is neither easy nor even possible to predict what those decisions will be. What will happen if these decisions are taken by algorithms based on pre-defined rules that continue to learn according to characteristics that are defined by human behaviour, which is too often stereotyped? On the one hand, choices may appear objectively plausible and not subject to emotions or loss of control. On the other hand, we may find ourselves facing a dilemma for which there will be no easy solution.

An emblematic case of compromise in decision-making

MIT’s project clearly exemplifies this concept. Here, the question to be answered is: can a self-driving car behave according to social or moral parameters? More specifically: can an algorithm take decisions for a self-driving car concerning the life or death of passengers or passers-by when, for example, the brakes fail? Should the car go straight ahead into a barrier, causing serious consequences or even death to its occupants, or should it steer away sharply and hit passers-by walking across the road? How will it decide between knocking down an elderly or disabled person or a child, or even more simply, choose between a man and a woman?

This is an ethical dilemma that, as the project designers say, has become a social dilemma.

Moral Machine is a platform designed to build, collaboratively, a broad set of human decisions about how “machines” (and with this term we include not just cars, but automatons in general) should act if faced with a moral dilemma.

What takes precedence: passenger safety or the decision to opt for the safety of passers-by, prioritising trust in the vehicle’s safety equipment? With the risk, however, that should the behaviour of this on-board algorithm become known, these cars would not sell and therefore their production may not be justified?

At the end of last year, the authors of the project claimed to have collected more than five million responses from more than a million people of different backgrounds and cultures. It is clear that the objective of the project is not to find the answer, which does not exist and never will, but to start the debate.

A possible way out

How do we get around this? In an article written seven years ago I considered what could be the procedures and opportunities to direct economic imagination and technological innovation towards unexpected achievements, by means of new ways of producing and living based on accumulated knowledge. Then I had no answers and concluded that it was necessary to prepare by generating a potential reserve to be used when the opportunity presented itself. The time has come to draft the first response.

Men, and not algorithms, have a soul

In a world that will be progressively dominated by algorithms that “reason” on data, we absolutely must not lose sight of the centrality of man, and we must invest increasingly in people.

We are taking the first steps into territory that requires technical ingenuity to be increasingly balanced by a creative and empathetic vision of the world. This ability essentially derives from the study and continuous nourishment of humanistic culture, which must grow in step alongside that of technology. Also, by applying this approach to the apparently “cold” world of Information Technology, we lay the foundation for a capable developer to increase his/her skills and progress by honing the value of his/her training to become a skilled architect or system designer, content creator or data scientist. Scholastic development plays a vital role in this process at all levels, also providing knowledge of our cultural roots. This is all the more relevant when imparting the vital ethical and transparency values that are needed to guide our behaviour. In this area, we as Europeans are in a better position than the Anglo-Saxon world and we must defend our prerogatives.

Human nature, in comparison with other natural and biological species, can be summed up as an entity formed by overlapping layers (a schematic of the approach that will surely be familiar to computer users). Moving from the bottom toward the top: the material layer; the biological; the logical, the spiritual, and finally for the believers, faith. The more man progresses to the higher level, the more fragile he becomes, because “the more one knows, the more fragile one becomes”. The path to gaining full awareness of ourselves and the people around us is the price man must pay to become capable of facing the dynamism and complexity of everyday life. This is the soul that differentiates man from other species and, looking to the future, also from the ”artificial intelligence” solutions that he will come to develop, even when it may seem that they have their own “autonomous life”.

What feeds the soul is the humanistic culture that, within an “open” context, also displays itself as trust in others, ethics, gratuitousness, empathy and love.

Beauty will save the world

To love means to understand the other individual, to know oneself and others, to accept, to offer, to give value. If we continue to hasten step by step into this new digital territory, we will be able to not only accelerate progress but also govern it with ethical and transparent rules to discover the beauty that it creates.

Beauty will save the world, Fedor Dostoevskij used to say to Prince Myskin. There is also beauty in software, algorithms and the results they produce. Beauty is above all in what we do not see, beyond what we see; the beauty of what we experience every day and all this is created by man.

Gabriele Ruffatti