PETAL: Context

Why Planetary Ethics and Artificial Intelligence?

Drawing on the work of the German philosopher Dilthey (1833-1911), modern universities have institutionalized a clear division between Naturwissenschaft (natural science) and Geisteswissenschaft (human sciences). As a result, the humanities and the natural sciences have made rapid advances independently of each other, but have also contributed to a social dysfunction in which scientists and humanists are increasingly ignorant of each other’s work. A key example of this dysfunction can be seen in the general, widespread failure to translate scientific knowledge about climate change into broader social, political and cultural action.

But recent developments in the sciences of evolution, cosmology and astrobiology have demonstrated that human life can only emerge in a planetary context. No longer is it possible to imagine a sustainable future for the human species independent from a complex planetary environment.

This new scientific understanding requires us to reform the humanities from a planetary perspective. It calls into question the distinctive axioms of European humanism, that man is the measure of all things, and that only human beings possess subjectivity, freedom and agency. No longer may we base our self-understanding on the false assumption that human beings are ontologically distinct from other forms of life that have emerged on our planet or indeed elsewhere in the universe. From a planetary perspective the unique achievements of the human species arise from and within their planetary context, not in spite of it.

A second challenge to modern European humanism has been the development of autonomous systems (AS) and artificial intelligence (AI). If machines can be said to function autonomously, and computers can simulate the intelligence of human minds, is there any fundamental difference between a human mind and an artificially intelligent system that is manufactured in a computer laboratory? The development of AI/AS raises again the fundamental questions of subjectivity, free will and agency that lie at the heart of the humanities, and calls into question the modern humanistic distinction between nature, people and things.

The humanities are therefore challenged from two distinct but related areas. On the one hand the sciences of evolution and astrobiology call into question the uniqueness of the human life. On the other hand, computer science calls into question the uniqueness of the human intelligence. These twin challenges together amount to a second Copernican revolution, a radical decentering of the human understanding of what it means to be human.

Rising to the challenge of this fundamental humanities question, James Miller and Daniel Lim are working together to direct a humanities lab at DKU titled “Planetary Ethics and Artificial Intelligence” (PETAL).  By asking the fundamental question of the humanities—what does it mean to be human?—both from the perspective of our planetary context and from the perspective of artificial intelligence, the lab will generate new research agendas and new pathways for the humanities to flourish in the 21st century.

Crucially, this research can only take place in a university context that is designed from the ground up to question Dilthey’s formulation of the fundamental distinction between the human sciences and the natural sciences, and to bring the European origins of modern humanism into dialog with Chinese and other world philosophical traditions. The humanities lab will thus take advantage of DKU’s unique cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural context to train the next generation of scholars to ask and answer the question of what it means to be human in the era of artificial intelligence and planetary civilization.