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AI will deepen divisions, say Yuval Noah Harari and Slavoj Zizek

Audiences at this year’s HowTheLightGetsIn festival heard a stark warning about the risks of artificial intelligence

Humans should worry less about what is natural and more about how our efforts to create artificial intelligence could end up deepening divisions between us, two leading thinkers have said.

During a packed event at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival at Hay-on-Wye on the Jubilee weekend, the historian and best-selling author of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, and philosopher Slavoj Žižek appeared together on a panel for the first time to discuss whether nature should be regarded as humanity’s friend or foe.

In a wide-ranging discussion, the two celebrity intellectuals rejected the binary choice. Nature is neither our friend nor our enemy, they said, neither good nor bad. Instead it exists outside morality, even if moral terms may be hard to resist. “If we have a mother nature, then this mother is a dirty bitch!” Žižek said, pouring scorn on the notion of nature as a benevolent caregiver.

Surprised to find themselves on the same side of the argument (“when will the knives come out?” Žižek wondered aloud), they suggested that the distinction between the natural and the non-natural was itself artificial. 

Over the past few centuries, our scientific and technological successes have helped to convince us that humans are somehow above nature, they said. The notion that human-led innovations and incidents such as nuclear reactors, the Covid-19 vaccine or even the war in Ukraine are “natural” may sound peculiar. But given their existence doesn’t violate any natural laws and they are made of the same physical material as everything else, then in a sense they are. For this reason, Harari said “You can’t get morality and ethics out of the laws of nature.”

And yet, Žižek said, what we call “nature” is culturally mediated. Things we put in the category today are different from those considered natural in the 16th century. Our sense of the natural is also deeply ideological, Harari said. When homosexuality was considered “unnatural”, that was a political statement. Nature doesn’t offer us moral rules or attempt to determine what is right and wrong; nature just is.

These definitions are about to be challenged again, Harari said, given we are on the verge of creating what he called “inorganic life”, in the form of advanced artificial intelligence. By definition “artificial” today, it may be considered natural in the future. 

Festival-goers queuing to see Harari and Zizek

Festival-goers queuing to see Harari and Zizek

Humans, meanwhile, may be heading in the opposite direction. With gene therapy and bionic implants, we are also on the cusp of changing our biological makeup in radical ways. That might thrill transhumanists, said Harari, but we should exercise caution. Dictators have long dreamt of this power.

“My biggest fear is that in this attempt to upgrade humans, we will actually downgrade ourselves,” Harari said. “If you give corporations and armies the technology to start messing with our DNA, to start messing with our brains, they may amplify certain human qualities that they need, like discipline… meanwhile, they don’t need other human qualities like compassion or artistic sensitivity or spirituality.”

Žižek agreed that the ability to enhance the human body could end up debasing humanity. Stalin, he noted, wanted to do exactly that: to create an army of genetically engineered workers who could labour beyond the limits of any human and survive on basic provisions.

Their vision went far beyond the commonplace fear that AI would put a few people out of work – or even that the robots might rise up against us. “The problem isn’t whether we will be enslaved by machines, but that this enslavement will strengthen the division between humans,” Zizek said. “Some people will control us, and some people will be controlled.”

It was a bracing thought for a bank holiday weekend, but just the sort of bold idea that HowTheLightGetsIn was created to invoke. Founder Hilary Lawson said one of his primary motivations for setting up the festival was a hope that philosophy would be taken more seriously. 

“Back in 2008, people might have joked that philosophy was more for Parisian taxi drivers than the everyday person,” Lawson said. “It had walled itself in with arguments over the meaning of terms and words and definitions, which really didn’t seem to have much bearing on people and their everyday lives. For many at the time, philosophy was more associated with the Monty Python philosopher’s football match than it was with anything actually worth talking about. I wanted to see whether I could change that.”

On the evidence of Harari and Žižek’s discussion over the weekend, and the growing interest in the HTLGI festival which has been called “Europe’s answer to TED”, which today receives more than a million views on its website each month, that ambition has been successful.

“You don't need to be from a technical background to connect with questions about why we’re alive,” Lawson said. “We’re all philosophers really – it’s about what it means to be human.”

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