The singularity of Castellio
Philosophers and great humanists were magnificent consiglieres. Their advice was based on a vast knowledge of different disciplines and a deep sense of responsibility. The ethics and serenity of their position sometimes led them into bitter moral conflicts, for which they often paid with their lives, as in the case of Seneca with Nero.
To give advice, one needs to have a free conscience devoted to knowledge and learning. This model of behavior and responsibility was maintained throughout his eventful life by the persecuted Sebastian Castellio (probably the first humanist in history). In Geneva in the XVI century, this forgotten university professor clashed with all the theologians of his time, describing Michael Servetus as an innocent victim and John Calvin as a dogmatic executioner of a blind, reformist faith. He rejected all Calvin’s arguments with his immortal words: “Killing a man is not defending a doctrine, it is killing a man”. Adviser to several Swiss nobles, this humble humanist proclaimed the right to freedom of conscience: “To seek and speak the truth as one holds it can never be a crime. Nobody should be forced to believe. The conscience is free.”
Nowadays, philosophy is not considered to affect the work of scientists and technologists, but the world surrounding these professionals is full of ethical and moral issues that bear a direct influence on what they do. Scientific facts are not open to discussion, but their importance is.
“We need to define what we want to be and not what we can be. We must agree on how to use technology for the common good and not only to obtain growth and profits”
During the XX century, most philosophers who have touched on technology have been critical of is impact on mankind (Heidegger, Ellul, Arendt or Gehlen). But on the other hand, the philosophers of ‘transhumanism’ have done an about-face in recent decades to become fans of technology.
But let’s go back for a moment to the importance of the Freedom of Conscience introduced by Sebastian Castellio. Freedom, from the Latin libertas, -ātis, broadly speaking, is the capacity of the conscience to think and act according to the will of the person. From freedom, we get free will or free choice as the belief upheld in philosophical doctrine, whereby people can choose and make their own decisions. This differs from freedom in the sense that it entails the potential to act or not act.
And once again, just like Castellio, we clash with John Calvin, who spread the idea that God, in his sovereignty, decided who was to be saved even before the Creation, as written in the “Synod of Dort”. Calvinists denied free will, concluding that human will, rather than master of people’s own actions, was rigidly predetermined in all their options throughout their lifetimes. Just like Calvin, Determinists have always maintained that all human actions are predetermined and, therefore, freedom is an illusion. They have always tried to explain natural phenomena using mathematics, thus giving rise to the belief that everything in the Universe can be predicted if the initial conditions are known. It is as if they had been waiting for Artificial Intelligence (AE) for centuries.
But can we create a machine that imitates the human brain and gives AI free will? There are two confronting views on this: (a) One says it is possible for mental functions such as conscience or free will to develop in an incomputable (non-algorithmic) way, which means that with our current knowledge we cannot copy it. (b) The other option is that there is nothing in free will that we cannot copy. A “Moral Turing Test” has been proposed and it is believed that current algorithms have less difficulty in passing this ethical test than the original Turing Test. In this case, AI will be able to make decisions just like us, and even better than us.
In a good article by Rebeca Yanke published in the newspaper El Mundo, the German futurist Gerd Leonhard reflected: “We need to define what we want to be and not what we can be. We must agree on how to use technology for the common good and not only to obtain growth and profits. AI, genome manipulation, nanotechnology and climate engineering are the four areas of concern in which an arms race could occur, which might lead to an unsurmountable situation.”
Many questions arise about our technological-humanist future. Knowing that the decision-making process is programmable, who decides what is decided by an algorithm? What ethics must we program with supervision and who should be identifiably responsible for encoding the ethical subroutine? And if we take it to the governing bodies of business groups, will AI be able to make decisions that compromise the company’s sustainability? Will we be able to build a legal system based on neutral AI?
In his book Ética para las máquinas, José Ignacio Latorre, Professor of Quantum Physics, reveals technological Singularity: “If we build increasingly more powerful and autonomous Artificial Intelligence, the time will come when an algorithm can improve itself… Each AI will design the next one, whichwill be even better than itself. This iterative process will continue its unstoppable advance towards incredible intelligence.” We will then have reached Singularity. A Single Superior Intelligence will have been created.
Will we give machines freedom and accept their decisions even though we don’t understand them? I believe that to confront a future Calvinist dogmatism of a Single Superior Intelligence, we only have to recover the “Singularity” of Sebastian Castellio and, as good consiglieres, preserve the Freedom of Conscience and not entrust our humanity exclusively to algorithm.