Time to Major in Philosophy?

Miami Dade Classroom | Feral Philosophy, from a Wikimedia photograph

“Studying philosophy may be about to pay off,” writes an Irish Times editor in a recent article. This is so, he claims, because the ethical challenges accompanying the rise of artificial intelligence, big data and biotech are simply too great, and apparently there is nobody around to address them.

Studying philosophy may be about to pay off.

It’s a cute idea, a glimmer of hope for all those who majored in philosophy and are still working as baristas.

Leaning heavily on the latest intellectual superstar, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari —someone that is on Feral’s radar—the author discusses growing fears about where the steady technological march is taking us.

Technologies such as facial recognition software, biometric data, and algorithms are becoming ever-more sophisticated. The aim of these innovations is essentially the same: controlling people by hacking into and manipulating their desires, decisions and opinions.

The author of the article mentions a future scenario lifted from the pages of Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, a book one could categorize as a “techie-dominated dystopia.” Harari imagines what Dr. Evil—North Korea’s Kim Jong-un—would do if he got his hands on the latest gadgets. For example, he could use “biometric sensors to pick up telltale signs of discontent in individual citizens.”

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‘Head, brain and large arteries of a healthy female adult, MRI’ by Patrick Hales, UCL (Wellcome Collection)

“Higher blood pressure or increased activity in the amygdala [part of the brain that deals with emotions] upon sighting a picture of the Great Leader and ‘you’ll be in the Gulag tomorrow morning.’ Orwell, it seems, was prescient about the powerful threat of technology.”

Higher blood pressure or increased activity in the amygdala [part of the brain that deals with emotions] upon sighting a picture of the Great Leader and ‘you’ll be in the Gulag tomorrow morning.’

And we thought the telescreens in Winston’s home were sinister enough.

We are only beginning to understand the social, political and psychological impact of these emerging technologies.

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Pixabay

But, let’s return to our beaming philosophy students who have just been told that society might need them after all.

On one hand, their voices, if sharply critical, are valuable for confronting Silicon Valley head on. And let’s face it, the California tech gurus deserve a good lashing. Instead of making our lives better, they have somehow managed to create unruly behemoths like Google and Facebook, companies that have used their increasing know-how to feed a voracious advertising machine, unsatisfied until it has gobbled up all your personal data.

So, in this sense, there will always be a role for philosophers to inject some strong external criticism into the tech bubble. The question is: How seriously are philosophers taken? On a positive note, Harari, a historian with a solid grounding in philosophy, certainly seems to have whipped up some healthy dissent against our tech-dominated world.

But at one point, the Irish Times editor suggests it will be the programmers who have to get philosophical. For example, he writes, autonomous vehicle developers will have to consider the “trolley problem”—what to do about a runaway trolley car. If you do nothing, it will run over five people on the main track, likely killing them. But if you pull a lever, diverting the car onto another track, it will kill only one person.

“The advent of autonomous vehicles means this philosophical dilemma is front and centre for programmers,” the author writes.

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Ed Yourdon | Visualhunt

Getting programmers to think like philosophers? Well, good luck with that.Programmers often emerge from the university with just vocational training, specific to their craft, and little humanistic study. Once in the workplace, many of them operate according to the unwritten rule: Get as many people addicted to your games, social media apps, and devices as possible. This principle is the beating heart of Silicon Valley.

Get as many people addicted to your games, social media apps, and devices as possible. This principle is the beating heart of Silicon Valley.

Yes, philosophy can help here, but politicians can help more. What we need first and foremost is no-nonsense legislation that can regulate this tech onslaught. And if philosophical diagnoses of our tech addiction can permeate the halls of political power or shift public opinion, well then of course philosophy can play a big role.