Partner and Research Director Sandrine Cathelat (France) leads the research at the Netexplo Observatory, along with Mathilde Hervieu (France). Founded in 2007 by Martine Bidegain and Thierry Happe, under the patronage of the French Senate and the Ministry of the Digital Sector (Ministry of Economy and Finance), Netexplo Observatory studies the global impact of new digital issues on society and businesses.
A tale of two futures
Is artificial intelligence (AI) on the verge of becoming completely autonomous? The answer will depend on us alone. It is up to us to define the future of humanity, in harmony with this technological tool that we sometimes perceive as a terrifying monster.
Sandrine Cathelat and Mathilde Hervieu
As we have seen for several years now, the latest technological developments are creating a service-based ecosystem that is ever easier to use. Steering this convenient ecosystem, is AI! For the individual, citizen or consumer, it means an increasingly wide range of user-friendly services, available to simplify their lives and make optimized choices. For the worker, self-employed or salaried, it provides the advantage of a more objective assessment, more immediate access to know-how and experts, digital assistance at all times to be up for the task. For organizations and their managers, it is an opportunity to entrust more and more managerial responsibilities to AI: optimizing purchasing, logistics, the security of installations and databases, selection and recruitment, the distribution of tools and human resources – all this in real time, with maximum flexibility.
But is everything in the capabilities of these algorithms worth accepting? Anything at all, at any price, in the name of efficiency and profitability? The dizzying pace of successive innovations and disruptions, and the increasing concentration of innovation hubs in the hands of a few, must keep us on the alert. Especially since this trend towards the delegation of responsibilities will only increase when AI develops to become more generalized. It is already setting the stage for this by extending its connectivity network to our entire real environment, in a technological trend where interfaces are becoming more invisible and intuitive.
We are at the crossroads of civilizations, and a major challenge is emerging: what status, what place, what use for Homo sapiens in this digitalized ecosystem (hybrid at best) of the twenty-first century? Are we experiencing the opportunity here, to redefine human beings and their humanity in order to better envisage life with AI and its multiple incarnations? What scenarios of the future should we envisage and write (since it is still our responsibility to wield the pen)? It is certainly high time to reflect and to choose which strategy to adopt in the face of digital empowerment: prohibit or regulate, to reverse the course of innovation or at least to slow it down? Should we bet on a new kind of cyborg human species to animate the man-machine competition, on the machine’s own playing field? Or demonstrate creative plasticity by imagining a society of complementary collaborations between human and digital capacities?
The time of metamorphosis
AI is a hot topic. It catalyses all our anxieties. Some still say it is “weak”. When will we see it as “strong”? Who will own it? Who will have the right to use it? To do what? And above all, what will it look like? Will it be human or human-like? Will it have all our qualities and defects? Will it have a morality and an intention? To evoke it in this way makes it a terrifying monster. However, if AI is monstrous, it is more a monster of efficiency than a monster like Frankenstein’s! Because AI is a tool, just like a hammer, driven by an external will.
This will is organizational and not human, however. AI is a tool that, since it emerged a few decades ago, has served the objectives of profitability and functionality of an organization. It is thus, first and foremost, the tool of a project, a vision, a narrative. And today, the dominant narrative is that of efficiency.
Nevertheless, AI is not a tool like any other. If at first it was tactical software entirely sponsored and programmed by humans, it is now entering a second phase where it is gradually gaining autonomy – becoming capable of choosing, by itself, the method that will allow it to achieve a goal. The goal is still set by a human. Tomorrow, yesterday's software will become autonomous AI in every respect, capable of setting its own objectives and means, capable of operating in a network, capable of modifying people's narratives. For better or for worse.
Given this logical and anticipated metamorphosis (which we cannot deny if we maintain this technological momentum), we are tempted to be frightened by AI, even though we still hold the reins. But we have to face major challenges: the transparency of algorithms and databases; the limits and constraints to be set for the machines and services they can provide; the writing of a narrative that AI can serve in the same way we can. The question is probably less technological than ethical, moral and political: what is our future with AI, what narrative will we write?
The cyborg solution
A first scenario is the natural extension of the current narrative. In this tale of efficiency, growth and liberalism, humans have no choice but to develop themselves – not to compete, but to co-operate, with the machine. Because the advent of AI raises the question of human employment and skills versus digital skills. In a profitability model, it is highly likely that the vast majority of jobs will be assigned to machines. In order to hold their ground, humans will increase the number of their digital aids and acquire capacities greater than those conferred on them by nature. Thanks to the osmosis between the human and the digital, humans will become more efficient. They will understand faster, decide faster, act faster. These gifts of hyper-awakening and hyper-consciousness are consistent with the current narrative of efficiency.
The cyborgs – very light, very agile, very chameleon-like – will be ready to co-operate actively and on an equal footing with the machine, provided they get closer to it. They will be augmented by the unlimited resources of the digital intelligence network, but at the same time, their quota of humanity will be diminished. Like AI, the cyborg will then become a monster of efficiency and both will be part of the same network that will connect humans and machines without distinction.
This osmosis with AI has many benefits, mainly functional reassurance and operational efficiency. But it raises major issues. What will happen if the power is “cut off”? Who will have access to the cloud? Will we have to agree to be transparent to have access to it? Will we have to pay for it? Will there be a single cloud for everyone? Or a variety of clouds, but of variable quality? Will the cyborg be synonymous with equality or will it mean a socio-economic divide? One thing is certain: once cyborgs have become fully connected, they will no longer own anything, and especially not their skills. They will be users, merely temporary custodians of available services. What will happen then if their rights are cut off?
A new human narrative
These issues are all the more important because if AI is still in the midst of a metamorphosis, this is also the case for humanity. The cyborg solution is part of the narrative of capitalist liberalism. But is this narrative capable of meeting the challenges we face, even as the planet and its resources are being depleted? Aren’t we being ordered to invent a new narrative? Especially since with this powerful tool, AI, we would undoubtedly have the means to implement it.
AI is a powerful tool capable of successfully developing an existing model, but disrupting the established order is not in its DNA. Moreover, our current digital transformation efforts do not invent anything, either, and do not change the narrative in any way. Our catchphrase could then be summed up like this: let's stop innovating and start inventing!
Because it is humans that we can trust (once again) to invent. And their convictions and motivation are multiple sources that fuel efforts to resist the current model. To invent is to speak of a faith, a desire, an intention fixed to the body, a certainty. It means talking about meaning before talking about technological achievement or financial aim. Inventiveness often originates in a singular, unique spirit – in the mind of a woman or a man, in their history, wounds or strengths, desires or needs. Let us not forget that the great geniuses of humanity have drawn from their innermost weaknesses (which they sought to overcome, mostly), the obstinacy necessary for their success.
We are talking here about a scenario that no longer has anything to do with cyborgs, and where there is no mention either of rejecting technology as a tool. We are talking about another narrative, which will use AI, but for other purposes, with other constraints and rules of use. We are talking about a strategy that gives pride of place to what makes us human. And without pitting the human against the machine, we must recognize that in this strategy, what was for the cyborg a weakness, becomes a strength.
We are not talking about standardization here. We are not talking about rational logic. We are not talking about causality, prediction, process. We are not talking about a stereotypical model of efficiency. We will not be able to leave this new scenario to the machines. Their overpowering algorithms have neither faith nor conviction; no anarchist or transgressive spirit, and no fierce desire to survive and see their children happier than themselves! Collaboration with the machine can be beneficial, undoubtedly, but it must be better supervised, better controlled and better understood. All this will be possible if we all agree on the narrative it should serve. Let's pick up our pens today!
Photo: Fabian Albertini