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Henry Kissinger: Will artificial intelligence mean the end of the Enlightenment?


Stringer | Imaginechina

Nikola Krestonosich Celis - published on 06/13/18

The former Secretary of State warns that if we don't address concerns about artificial intelligence soon, it may be too late.

A lot has already been written about artificial intelligence, the technology capable of solving complex problems by processes that seem to replicate those of the human mind. Many recent articles deal with the impact it might have on our lives and, in so far as this technology is able to do things that were previously thought to be reserved for human beings, a lot of recent pieces reflect about what changes it will bring to our conception of what it means to be human. AI has become such a relevant topic that it comes as no surprise to find, in the latest issue of The Atlantic, an excellent piece on the topic by former national-security adviser and secretary of state to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger.

Mr. Kissinger had the opportunity of attending a lecture where someone from Alphabet’s DeepMind team was explaining the workings of AlphaGo, a computer program especially designed to play the game of Go that soon surpassed the skills of its human mentors and, in the months following the speech that Mr. Kissinger heard, decisively defeated the world’s greatest Go players. Go, by the way, is an ancient game of strategy more complex than chess in which each player deploys 180 pieces and where victory goes to the side that, by making better decisions, immobilizes his or her opponent.

The speaker insisted that the ability to play this game could not be pre-programmed and that AlphaGo learned to master it by training itself. That is, once it was given the basic rules of the game, it played innumerable games against itself, learning from its mistakes and refining its algorithms accordingly. This conference inspired Mr. Kissinger, a historian by training, to ask a series of very philosophical and pertinent questions:

“What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines —machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? [quick hint: apparently, they do] How would choices be made among emerging options? Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them?”

After hearing this speech, Mr. Kissinger started to study the subject more thoroughly and learned that artificial intelligence goes far beyond automation. AI programs don’t deal only with the rationalization and improvement of means, they are also capable of establishing their own objectives, making judgments about the future and of improving themselves on the basis of their analysis of the data they acquire. This realization only caused Mr. Kissinger’s concerns to grow:

“How is consciousness to be defined in a world of machines that reduce human experience to mathematical data, interpreted by their own memories? Who is responsible for the actions of AI? How should liability be determined for their mistakes? Can a legal system designed by humans keep pace with activities produced by an AI capable of outthinking and potentially outmaneuvering them?”

What should be done about these issues? How should the topic be handled? What are its most urgent implications? Mr. Kissinger lightly explores the implications of these developments on the world of commerce and US national security concerns, but what he really tries to unravel in this piece is their philosophical impact. In this front of the debate on AI, for him, at least, one thing is certain: the developments in artificial intelligence mark the end of the Enlightenment. What he means by this is that the developments in this field are of such magnitude and are taking place at such rapid pace that they are pushing for a reassessment of all the fundamental notions about what it means to be human and about the place of humankind in the universe that crystallized around the 18th century and that are the foundation of what we know as modern Western civilization. It is because he has realized these are the stakes of the debate that, first, he urges US policy makers to make this topic a high national priority and, secondly, he urges the persons steering all these developments to open the debate and the discussions concerning these issues to all the humanistic traditions:

“The Enlightenment started with essentially philosophical insights spread by a new technology. Our period is moving in the opposite direction. It has generated a potentially dominating technology in search of a guiding philosophy. AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology, should ask themselves some of the questions I have raised here in order to build answers into their engineering efforts. This much is certain: If we do not start this effort soon, before long we shall discover that we started too late.”


If you truly want to understand the scope of the discussion and the significance of AlphaGo, you should definitely check the following videos:

You can also watch on Netflix the documentary simply titled AlphaGo:

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