I have spent the better half of the last two years trying to convince companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, DeepMind, and OpenAI that they need to hire philosophers.
My colleagues and I—a small collective of academics that make up a program called Transformations of the Human at the Los Angeles-based think tank called the Berggruen Institute—think that the research carried out by these companies has been disrupting the very concept of the human that we—in the West particularly—have taken for granted for almost half a millennium.
It’s not only that, though. These companies have helped create realities that we can no longer navigate with the old understanding of what it means to be human.
We need new ones—for ourselves, so that we are able to navigate and regulate the new worlds we live in, but also for the engineers who create tech products, tools, and platforms, so that they can live up to the philosophical stakes of their work.
To make that possible, we need philosophers and artists working alongside computer and software engineers.
I realized that fields like AI and microbiome research or synthetic biology not only undermine the historic way we think of the human—they also allow for new possibilities for understanding the world.
It suddenly dawned on me that I could look at each one of these fields, not just AI and the microbiome, but also synthetic biology, biogeochemistry, and others, as if they were a kind of philosophical laboratory for re-articulating our reality.
We are living in an era of a major, most far-reaching philosophical event: A radical re-articulation of what it is to be human and of the relation between humans, nature, and technology.
Yet at present, no one really formally talks about this philosophical quality of tech. Hence, no one attends to it, with the inevitable consequence that the sweeping re-articulation of the human unfolds around us in a haphazard, entirely unconscientious way.
Shouldn’t we try to change this?
When I shared my enthusiasm with my colleagues in academia, I found that what was exciting to me was an unbearable provocation for many others.
My suggestion that the question concerning the human has migrated into the fields of the natural sciences and engineering—that is, into fields not concerned with the traditional study of the human and humanity at all—were received as threat to academics in the arts. If humans are no longer more than nature or machines, then what are the arts even good for?
Today, we have philosophy and art teams at Element AI, Facebook, and Google, and also at AI labs at MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford. Our researchers are in regular conversation with DeepMind, OpenAI, and Microsoft.
What we need now is a completely new model for an educational institution, one that can produce a new kind of practitioner.
We need a workforce that thinks differently, and that can understand engineering, from AI to microbiome research to synthetic biology to geoengineering and many other fields—as philosophical and artistic practices that ceaselessly re-invent the human.
Almost every month, you’ll likely read about another billion-dollar endowment for a new tech school. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with this—I agree we always need better, smarter, tech.
On the other hand, these tech schools tend to reproduce the old division of labor between the faculty of arts and the faculties of science and engineering. That is, they tend to understand tech as just tech and not as the philosophical and artistic field that it is.
What we need are not so much tech schools, as institutions that combine philosophy, art, and technology into one integrated curriculum.
I completely agree with Mr Tobias Rees
This article is absolutely worth reading in full.