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Human Dimension Essay - A beautiful glitch: for a green and blue human future

The digital revolution opens a new chapter in the history of humanity that is just as important as its agricultural and industrial predecessors. This time, the revolution in progress, caused by extraordinary technological innovations in the recording, distribution and automatic processing of data, is transforming the environment we live in, increasingly represented by the infosphere; the way we live, which is ever more onlife; and our identity, that is, how we see ourselves and how we relate to one another. It is therefore above all a conceptual and cultural revolution, which generates significant ethical and management challenges for the so-called governance of the digital sphere. Overcoming these challenges successfully means constructively and profitably combining the Green of all the spaces we live in, whether natural or artificial, with the Blue of all the digital technologies available, from Big Data to Artificial Intelligence. This marriage between the Green and the Blue, along with its positive effects on society and the environment, is the human project for the 21st century.

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Sometimes, we forget that life without the positive contribution made by politics, science and technology soon becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, to use the famous phrase from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. The COVID-19 crisis has tragically reminded us that nature can be ruthless. Only human ingenuity and good effort can safeguard and improve the lives of billions of people. Today, much of this effort is being made with the aim of achieving an epochal revolution: the transformation of an exclusively analogue world into an increasingly digital one. The effects are visible everywhere: this is the first pandemic in which a new habitat, the infosphere, has helped overcome the hazards of the biosphere. For some time now, we have been living onlife (both online and offline), but the pandemic has made the onlife experience a common, irreversible reality.

The crucial factors in this momentous revolution include the enormous and increasingly affordable power of computers, increasingly pervasive connectivity, colossal quantities of data that keep growing and, finally, ever more effective artificial intelligence (AI). According to a classic definition, AI is the engineering of artefacts that can do things that would require intelligence if we were to do them ourselves.  This means that AI is not a marriage between computing and intelligence but rather the unprecedented divorce of agency from intelligence, that is, between the ability to complete tasks or solve problems successfully in view of a goal and any need to be intelligent when doing so. To play chess, even just to follow the rules, I must exercise some intelligence, but my mobile phone can beat me, even if it is as stupid as a toaster.

This divorce has only become possible recently, thanks to the factors mentioned above – above all networks, computing and data - in addition to increasingly sophisticated statistical tools, and the transformation of our habitats into places that are more and more compatible with AI. The more we live in the infosphere and onlife, the more we share our daily realities with artificial agents that can successfully perform a growing number of tasks.

The only thing that may limit AI is human ingenuity. Today, AI can help us to know, understand, predict and overcome, more often and more effectively, the many increasingly pressing challenges facing us: climate change, social injustice, global poverty and the need to update liberal democracies. The effective management of data and processes by AI can accelerate the virtuous circle of innovation, business models, more successful enterprise, more advanced science and more farsighted policies, including those that form the basis of legislation. However, knowledge is power only if it is transformed into action. Here too, AI can be an extraordinary force for good, helping us to tackle complex, systemic and global problems. We cannot solve these individually. We need to coordinate our efforts (not get in each other's way), collaborate (each one of us must do their bit) and cooperate (work together) more often and more effectively. And AI can help us develop these 3 Cs more efficiently (more results with fewer resources), effectively (better results) and innovatively (new results).

Yet there is a “but”: when not steered by good purposes human ingenuity can be dangerous. If the digital revolution is not controlled and guided in an ethical, sustainable way, it can exacerbate social problems, from prejudice to discrimination; erode human independence and responsibility; and worsen problems of the past, from the unfair distribution of costs and benefits to the development of a culture of mere distraction. And AI itself risks becoming not only part of the solution but part of the problem too. So, good international laws, starting with those of the European Union, are essential for ensuring that AI remains a powerful force for good.

When used for the creation and distribution of wealth, the good of society and environmental sustainability, AI is part of a new marriage between the Green of all our habitats - natural, synthetic and artificial, from the biosphere to the infosphere, from urban spaces to cultural, economic, social and political conditions - and the Blue of all our digital technologies, from mobile phones to social media platforms, from the Internet of Things to Big Data, from AI to the quantum computing of the future. The pandemic was the general test for what appears to be the human project for the 21st century, a successful divorce between agency and intelligence and a successful marriage between the Green and the Blue.

In light of such a Green & Blue marriage, the information society is more easily understood as a new manufacturing society in which raw materials and energy are replaced by data and information, the new digital gold and the real source of additional value. So, in addition to communication and transactions, the creation, design and management of information is key for correctly understanding the age we are living in and developing a better and more sustainable environment. This understanding requires a new vision of who we are today and of the human project we want to pursue. Previous revolutions in the creation of wealth, such as the agricultural and industrial revolutions, led to macroscopic transformations of our environmental, social and political structures, often without significant levels of farsightedness and with long-term and profound conceptual and ethical implications. The digital revolution is just as far-reaching. In consideration of this important historical change, the aim is to formulate an ethical and political framework that can treat the infosphere as our new environment.  And philosophy as the conceptual design can further this bid to update our perspective.

Galileo famously suggested that nature is like a book, written with mathematical symbols and to be read through science. In a world that is increasingly composed of 0's and 1's, today this no longer sounds like a metaphor. Digital technologies are increasingly successful in this world because, like fish in the sea, they are the true natives of the infosphere. They are more capable than us of performing a growing number of tasks because humans are analogue organisms trying to adapt to an ever more digital habitat, just like deep sea divers. As such, artificial agents, whether soft (such as apps, webots, algorithms, and all sorts of software) or hard (schu as robots, driverless cars, smart watches and all kinds of gadgets), are replacing human agents in areas that seemed inaccessible to any kind of technology only a few years ago. These include cataloguing images, translating documents, interpreting X-rays, extracting new information from enormous databases, and writing newspaper articles, to name but a few. Brown- and blue-collar workers have been subject to the pressure of the digital revolution for decades: now it is the turn of white-collar workers. It is impossible to predict how many jobs will disappear or be drastically transformed, but in all contemporary scenarios where people work as mere interfaces - for example between a GPS and a car, between two documents in different languages, between ingredients and a dish, between symptoms and illness - their jobs may be at risk. At the same time, new jobs are emerging - I like to call them green-collar jobs - because new interfaces are needed: between the services provided by computers, between websites, between AI applications, between the results of AI, and so on. Someone will have to decide whether a text needs to be translated and check that the approximate translation is sufficiently reliable, for instance. Many activities will remain too costly to be managed by AI, even if it were feasible to do so. But if we do not provide better legal and ethical frameworks, the digital revolution will further polarise our society. Think for example about the digital divide or the gig economy. And legislation will play an influential role, also in determining which jobs should remain “human”. Driverless trains are a rarity, also for legislative reasons, yet they are much easier to manage than driverless buses. Of course, it is important to stress that many of the tasks that are destined to disappear will not eliminate the jobs related to them: now that I have a robotic lawn mower, I have more time to look after my roses. And many activities will simply be reassigned to us, such as the automatic tills that let us scan our own goods in the supermarket. The digital revolution will definitely involve us doing more jobs for ourselves in the future.

And in all this, our intelligence will continually be tested by the success of AI, and our autonomy will be challenged by the ability of AI easily to predict and manipulate our choices. Our sociality will also be tested by our artificial counterparts, represented by artificial companions, mere voices or androids that can be both attractive to humans and sometimes hard to distinguish from the real thing. It is not clear how all this will end, but one thing is certain: there is no chance of Terminator turning up, and the scenarios presented by science fiction are nothing but irresponsible distractions. Smart technologies will always be as stupid as a pocket calculator. The problem will always be how we use them.

There is one last challenge facing us: maintaining our “exceptionality”. After the four revolutions brought about by Copernicus, Darwin, Freud and Turing, we are no longer at the centre of the universe, the animal kingdom, the mental sphere and the infosphere. The time has come to accept that our exceptionality lies in the special and perhaps irreplicable way in which we are successfully dysfunctional. As we would have said at high school, we are a hapax legomenon (meaning “a word that only occurs once in a text”) in Galileo's book of nature. Or, to use a more digital, contemporary metaphor, we are a beautiful glitch in the great software of the universe, not the most successful app. A glitch that must take more and more responsibility for the history it is writing and the nature it must look after.

Author: Luciano Floridi


Luciano Floridi is a professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of the OII Digital Ethics Lab. He is a world-renowned expert on digital ethics, the ethics of AI, the philosophy of information, and the philosophy of technology. He has published more than 300 works, translated into many languages. He is deeply engaged with policy initiatives on the socio-ethical value and implications of digital technologies and their applications, and collaborates closely on these topics.