Gabriel Fernández: “Technology predisposes us to excess and functions at speeds that exceed our human capabilities”

An interview with the lecturer from the Faculty of Humanities and director of the UIC Barcelona Observatory on Artificial Intelligence and New Technologies

On 21 April, the European Commission presented a series of measures to put artificial intelligence at the service of the public, as well as to ensure that it is used and implemented safely. This is the first legal framework on AI that is ethically committed to citizens. Why?

Those of us that work with technology are used to seeing fait accompli policies: first a technology is deployed and then it is regulated on the basis of the implications it entails. With artificial intelligence, however, many more precautions have been taken for two reasons. First, because we live in an interconnected society that has access to much more information than years ago, and second, because the very scientists developing the technology have already warned of the impact it may have.

It seems like a step in the right direction, then.

Unlike in other areas of the globe, Europe has raised questions regarding the ambivalences that artificial intelligence can generate. The European Commission has already been a pioneer in the field of privacy and is doing its homework in terms of how it plans to regulate this technology.

Yet it seems that ethics has returned to the forefront of the information debate.

There are numerous ethical challenges emerging with artificial intelligence. For example, in the field of engineering, there are many studies that focus on machine ethics, which analyse how to programme appliances following ethical criteria, which is no easy feat. This was unthinkable a few decades ago and the debate is now back on the table because it is imperative that we ask these questions: Ethics is fashionable and rightly so. This opens up many opportunities for ethics specialists…

Should we be worried?

It is clear that a revolution that ushers in technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and virtual/augmented reality, will represent a significant advancement for many productive sectors, so we must promote measures that provide for comprehensive sustainable development, in terms of both the environment and society in order to strike a balance between business innovation and the protection of citizens' rights.

Is it possible to find a balance that both sides can agree on?

There are three distinct stances on this dilemma: the techno-optimists, the techno-pessimists and the techno-moderates. The former believe that new technologies will create a completely new and revolutionary utopian world; the second group believe that this revolution will bring on an apocalyptic end; and the third and final group see the benefits but also the ethical dilemmas these technologies will introduce.

Do humanist professionals take this third stance too?

Yes, I hope so. Our challenge is to make these new technologies’ list of pros longer than their list of cons. Which is why new generations must have their wits about them, and not simply become passive recipients of this revolution, but also active agents. If they know what to expect from new technologies and how to manage them, they can influence society.

Is the public becoming more aware of the impact this revolution will have?

Cultural creation has played a decisive role in helping to explain the phenomenon. Films and series have done a great job of opening our eyes to the consequences that these technologies may have; the benefits and dangers they may generate. The humanities have also developed a critical discourse that allows for a more profound understanding of the phenomenon.

How can each of us minimise our exposure?

We need to encourage healthy habits, following a digital diet, for example. We need to be aware of how technology can push us toward excess. Once each individual discovers their limit, they can identify at which point technology becomes problematic. As the maxim inscribed on the front of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi says: "Nothing in excess". Technology promotes excess and functions at levels and speeds that exceed our human capabilities.

An excess that has been fostered by the companies that create these technologies. Would they also be required to regulate their business?

On the one hand, it would be great to outline government policies that regulate these corporations’ actions. On the other hand, they also have to integrate good practices on the use of technology as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR). I hope that in the short term, many organisations propose actions to act responsibly given the ethical dilemmas of emerging technologies. The monster that is persuasive technology, which uses our data to manipulate our behaviour, will have to be tamed by all of us, individually and collectively, using public awareness, regulation and cultural change.

What role do humanist professionals have to play in this context?

We humanists have a unique chance to leave our mark. Technology is part of culture and humanists must be involved and participate in the debate. Our vision and knowledge may be of great use in this revolution, an enriching complement to a technocracy focused on efficiency and results, but which fails to consider our universal values. That is why we are increasingly looking to involve humanities experts in the social aspects of technology. Technologists and humanists have to join forces.