What Should the Information Society Be? Luciano Floridi at Princeton

Why is the world changed by the digital and how can we shape it?

Speaking at Princeton today, the philosopher Luciano Floridi argued that technology has a “cleaving power” in society, and that the counterpoint to this power comes through design.

I’m here at the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy for a talk by Luciano Floridi (@floridi), the Oxford Internet Institute’s Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information.

Luciano starts out by encouraging us to be optimistic about the future of technology. While we may see recurring patterns in history, we have opportunities to change things. In Macbeth, Banquo asks the three witches to “look into the seeds of time” and “say which grain will grow and which will not [should not].” As any gardener knows, we can’t predict the future perfectly, but we can garden in different ways.

Luciano argues that we live in a “hyperhistoric time.” When we moved from pre-history to history, six thousands of years ago, information systems from clay tablets to computers became important to individual and social well-being. Our time is hyperhistoric because we’ve entered a dependent relationship with those information systems: if one part of those systems fails, society is at risk.

Living in an Infosphere

We live in an infosphere, says Luciano. Information technology is enveloping the world, due to cheaper computation, great access to computation, more data, better machine learning, better algorithms, information technologies and an more “onlife.” When Luciano talks about this enveloping, he is talking about the ways that surveillance and data collection are enclosing reality and empowering autonomous systems to have more abilities to act in the world.

Digital technologies are also allowing us to break many things into their component parts and re-assemble them in new ways. Presence used to be coupled with location, but they have now been de-coupled, allowing us to interact with companies remotely. Law and territoriality used to be closely coupled, but they have now been detached. People are now able to connect to information from many different places and even work for remote employers beyond national borders. Other decoupled ideas are ownership/usage. Digital technologies have also made it possible to join formerly-separate ideas in new ways, including producers+consumers, authenticity+memory, information+identity, and offline + online life (which Luciano calls “onlife”), and the analog+digital.

Luciano tells us that the work of design counterbalances the cleaving power of technology, because it allows us to combine things intelligently.

Digital design doesn’t have to be values-oriented, but “it could be a little more,” says Luciano.

Artificial Agency: Smart Decoupling

Agency, Luciano tells us, is the ability to achieve a task toward a particular purpose. In the past, humans were used to being surrounded by a large number of intelligent agents; now, some of those agents are autonomous. Luciano tells us the story from Homer’s Iliad of Hephaestus’s tables that knew where people needed them and moved autonomously to them. Luciano describes major AI companies and tells us that AI is the now new oil.

Luciano argues that “the digital does not describe nor prescribe the world.” Rather, it “inscribes” the world, writing new pages into the book of what happens. What does that mean for agency? He tells us the story of the 1955 Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence, whose goal was “making a machine behave in ways that would be called intelligent if a human were so behaving.” He tells us that rather than thinking about the singularity, we should think of AI as a “reservoir of agency” that can be deployed to do tasks.

Luciano next talks about speculations about AI and the job market. When people predict the future, they often fail to think about the role of law, taxation, inequality, and things like the possibility of universal basic income. Why haven’t trains become driverless, Luciano asks. It’s much easier to run a driverless train, but that hasn’t happened yet. Why not? Probably for regulatory reasons.

Those who live by technology die by technologies. The more we sit on a couch, the more the safety of the couch will be crucial to our survival. Luciano tells us that companies are woefully unprepared to manage the risk from AI. Furthermore, as artificial intelligence becomes incredibly widespread, it will be easy for anyone to hack into the “reservoir” of agency available via artificial intelligence. He tells us that if we think more about building human agency into systems, they will likely be more secure. Next he moves onto the environmental impact of AI, which might offer greater energy efficiencies but also requires increased energy requirements.

Luciano next shows us extrapolations of migration and tells us that as people live in megacities in the future, AI will be an important part of managing the complexity of megacities. This will entail needs to use AI for social good and efforts to manage human freedom. In order to preserve digital agency, we will need new ways to allocate responsibility. Luciano encourages designers to imagine the role of AI in managing distributed moral actions.

Next, he says that AI represents the end to human exceptionalism because it detaches intelligence from human brains. Should we value humans more than other intelligent beings? If humans are special, it’s because we’re nature’s beautiful glitch, says Luciano.

Luciano concludes by asking what sustainability means for the world. He encourages us to think about the sustainability of the “infosphere,” just as the environmental movement focuses on the biosphere. Toward this human project, Luciano encourages us to use the digital to cut capitalism from consumerism and imagine capitalism as an idea for fostering human well-being. Toward that goal, it might be possible for big companies to be good citizens of the infosphere. If the digital age is the age of design, it should be the age of good design.