By Dil Green
A proposal for progress
Engaging in events and conversations around the themes of Artificial Intelligence, Trans/Post-humanism, Singularity scenarios and Digital Futurism, all sorts of questions arise which involve consideration of unknowns, suppositions, assertions and opinions. Despite these layers of unknowns, it is nevertheless clear that society will soon need to make some serious decisions on a wide variety of issues. The outcome of these decisions is likely to have significant recursive impact on the very nature of humanity.
Discussing these questions, the thought arises that the single most important tool we need in making these decisions is a robust ethical framework – namely, a framework which is widely shared and which is ‘fit for purpose’ in addressing change and uncertainty.
Humanity will most probably be saved not by technologists but by philosophers.
However, what this ethical framework might actually be is typically assumed to be the responsibility of others, in some unspecified future.
Given that many commentators in varied fields subscribe to the idea that we are in a period of exponential change, one or more of these epochal phenomena will likely impinge on us in the next few decades, and so development of a useful ethical framework would seem to be an urgent undertaking. It is surely incumbent on individuals and groups who have reached this conclusion, not simply to ‘kick the can down the road’.
The time to start work is now.
A Progressive Ethics?
Of course, there already exist many and varied statements on ethics: the work of great philosophers, international declarations, legal frameworks, proposals in profusion. Why would we want yet another?
For a start, most are framed as static documents, closed to implications of rapid change; implicitly or explicitly, most have been developed in reaction to historical conditions, rather than with an eye to the future, and are set within frames of reference of a particular philosopher, tradition or class consciousness.
Clearly, existing frameworks will be important reference material, embodying as they do the best-intentioned thoughts of humanity over history. These, along with work by groups like the IEET and others within the futurist / progressive community, and the established practice of ethical committees within scientific, academic and medical establishments, must all be given serious consideration. However, it does not seem that any of these sources alone are immediately suitable for our purpose as they stand.
This proposal purposefully avoids any suggestion as to the content of a Progressive Ethics. Instead, the aim here is to start the ball rolling and to make some suggestions for a process and structure to support such a project, designed to allow it to meet the aim of being truly progressive, robust, practically useful and widely-accepted.
What do we need?
The proposal is that a Progressive Ethics is developed which can be of use to humanity in navigating the wide range of novel possibilities which must now be admitted as having the potential for significant impact on real futures (possibilities previously confined to the pages of speculative fiction).
Such a framework should help us to have better conversations – minimising the traps of misunderstanding and misrepresentation and enabling debate at ever higher levels based on clear shared understandings – even if these are understandings of disagreement.
We want this framework to be of practical use in deciding and implementing questions such as:
- The development of reliably ‘friendly’ AI
- The social management of a wide variety of technically possible modifications to strict biological life.
- The implications of augmented humanity / transhumanism.
- Effective and responsive approaches to inherently complex subjects such as human impact on the biosphere.
Suggestions for a start
These ideas are intended to start a debate about how such a project might get started, how it might be structured, how it might frame itself, and how it might best ensure that it remains relevant and responsive.
I suggest that we:
- Frame the effort as the initiation of a process – a process that will continue to respond to new developments in knowledge, technology and culture. This must include the guaranteed provision (and expectation) that ‘forks’ of the project are permitted;
- Set the fundamental aims of the project from the outset, and look to enshrining these in the foundational constitution of the body charged with maintaining and supporting the project;
- Look for a structure for representing / communicating the framework which:
- is not overly reductive, but remains rigorously rational,
- strikes the most effective balance between clarity and simplicity on the one hand, and appropriate flexibility of application on the other,
- supports the process-based approach without introducing undue ambiguity,
- Design the process from the outset to be one which enables broad engagement without loss of focus – this will mean selecting appropriate democratic structures for the core body alongside processes for concentric levels of engagement to wider audiences.
All of these suggestions need elaboration, but the key aim of this post is to generate interest from people willing to take the fundamental idea of such a project forwards.
About the author
Dil Green trained and worked as an architect. Notable projects include the Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum and a pioneering eco-friendly GP surgery.
The heroic self-image of architecture as the profession that actually builds a better future appealed to him, as a pragmatic utopian – someone who believes in working today towards a better tomorrow. However the strong limitations of the discipline quickly became apparent to him.
Since the advent of the web and smart devices, it has become increasingly clear that, for good or ill, the future will be built on the basis of digital tools. More, the kind of future that will be built is critically dependent on which particular tools become dominant.
His energies now go towards building digital tools and the social understanding around them that lead to the most positive outcomes for humanity that he can discern. He is interested in grass-roots, bottom-up developments, ones which can side-step power structures, ones which diminish the need for ‘approval’ from above, ones which empower humans acting in small groups towards human ends.