Philosophers can help us chart a path into the technological future
By Johan Steyn, 22 March 2022
Philosophers are sojourners, risk-takers, lonely souls and often misunderstood. They say the things we dare not say, they imagine the things we would not risk thinking. They push the boundaries, unveil the mysteries of humanness and peer underneath the skirt of the sacred.
The rise of philosophers often coincides with new technological discoveries — realisations that our evolutionary journey extends further than we thought — pushing us forward to the glorious unknown.
In the era of smart technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine cognition, intelligent automation, the brain-computer interface and the metaverse, a new philosophy is needed to understand our place in this world.
We look to the giants of the past: Aristotle, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and Bertrand Russell — to name a few — and gaze to the future, seeking thinkers who can guide us on this fast-changing and uncertain path. The need for ethicists and philosophers has never been more important.
Throughout the diminutive history of our kind, and amid the long shadow cast by ignorance, dim galaxies of radiance can be found — iridescent puffs of brightness — where mankind has momentarily crawled out of his insipid cave of slumber and discovered the hope of a new day. Glowing bright on the horizon of our existence are the thinking and labour of philosophers, scholars, scientists and explorers: mutineers, enlightened and solitary.
A new age of technology demands a new philosophy of what it means to be human. In a world of hyperautomation, where machines are smarter than us, our bodies and brains of carbon will deliquesce into the silicon sphere.
Homo sapiens is entering a world of the superhuman, or Homo Deus (the god-man) as per the title of the popular book by Yuval Noah Harari. It is interesting, but not surprising, that a historian and philosopher has become one of the most important contemporary voices on AI.
This reminds me of the paramount philosopher of our age, in my opinion at least: Friedrich Nietzsche. What a lost soul, mad man and delinquent he was. But oh, how brilliant was his thinking and writing. And too soon his shining light was diminished — dying as a sickly and mad man — but wonderful in his luminous understanding of mankind.
Nietzsche wrote in his most important work Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None about the Übermensch (the superman), building on the ideas of Goethe. Sadly the Nazis hijacked his ideas, linking them to the proposition of the Aryan race. Hitler even paid tribute to Nietzsche after his death by visiting his home on pilgrimage.
The rapid rise of the smart technology era will enable humans to become superhuman: we will have access to 3D-printed body parts, genetically re-engineered anatomies, superintelligent brain power connected to the cloud and we will enter a posthuman era catapulted into unimagined longevity.
We learn in Greek mythology that when Prometheus stole fire from heaven, the first woman on earth, Pandora, was given the jar pithos and was told to conceal it. But in her all-too-human curiosity she opened the container — reminiscent of the apple in the garden — and evil was unleashed on earth.
The technologies we are creating will unchain a sequence of events we have never before had to face. We need philosophers — those who shine with luminous creativity and thinking — to guide us collectively on this unchartered road.
• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals SA.