Can the World Tame 21st-Century Technology?

Can the World Tame 21st-Century Technology?

The new technological era, and its co-occurrence with great power competition, elicits a peculiar kind of existentialism.

A new industrial revolution is unfolding. A convergence of technological innovations that, as Thomas Philbeck and Nicholas Davis write, “span the digital, physical, and biological worlds” is triggering shifts in the character of human relations, the expression of human values, and the distinctiveness of human nature.

The rapid development of life-changing technologies—including artificial intelligence (AI), quantum science applications, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics—is sometimes categorized under the simultaneously rapturous and perilousfourth industrial revolution,” popularized by World Economic Forum co-founder Klaus Schwab. This idea and its associated expectations (and fears) have made their way into commentary on the future of warfare, defense mobilization, and even the structure of NATO. What’s more, the fourth industrial revolution is influencing great power competition between the United States and China, thereby shaping the contest over a world order premised on either authoritarian or liberal values.

The world faces a litany of challenges, and the grandest—global climate change—will shape the conditions for life this century and beyond. But this new technological era, and its co-occurrence with great power competition, elicits a peculiar kind of existentialism. The nature of emerging technologies, and the uses for which they are designed, force individuals to ask painful questions about their identities and relations with others and the world.

Indeed, there must be a firmer intellectual base to foster a broader and more coherent discourse rather than salvage familiar analytic concepts that worked in days past.

Surprisingly, the advancement of the modern scientific revolution in the seventeenth century helps provide the correct reference point. The origin of the natural sciences, exemplified by the works of Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, represents the development of a dramatically new way of thinking about the natural world and human beings’ relationship to it. Today, it is precisely the place for policymakers and anxious democratic publics—if both are engaged and serious—to look when dealing with technology, values, and political life this century.

Galileo and Newton realized something crucial: intuitive, familiar, or comfortable perceptions of the world should not serve as the foundations of their projects. Their choices to think about the world in bizarre ways, which nonetheless yielded remarkable and unforeseen progress—without which our technological lives would be unrecognizable—allowed the world to change dramatically. As the twenty-first century unfolds, we should identify the need for a similar paradigm shift.

What Makes This Century Different

Klaus Schwab believes that the fourth industrial revolution will fundamentally shift the character of human existence. This revolution, he argues, is unique in its sheer velocity, its effects on not only “how” things are done with new technologies but also “who” humans are becoming, and its comprehensive impact at every level of society.

But how, exactly, do emerging technologies lead to a new kind of existentialism?

Emerging technologies alter the significance of human abilities. This applies to a range of technologies including AI, synthetic biology, robotics, and even the Internet of Things, though its most illustrative form is AI.

For example, the defeat of professional Go player Lee Sedol in 2016 to the AI AlphaGo “prompted introspection about what it means to be human.” Suddenly, the professional Go community had to begin soul-searching. Lee captured the peculiar existentialism elicited by this technology when he retired in 2019, grimly admitting that “even if I become the number one, there is an entity that cannot be defeated.”

But this existentialism has a deeper source than human-machine confrontations. Emerging technologies would not have this perceived effect on the significance of human abilities were they not often created or evaluated in the image of human abilities—they are, in a sense, at first designed to be like us, and then better than us. Nowhere is this more evident than in AI, where there is an increasing sense that the field is moving at an unmanageably fast rate, with perceived breakthroughs in language, art, and text-to-video programs.

One does not need to be a techno-optimist to understand that these technologies are having these effects that will not go away by simply coexisting with them.

The effects of these technologies are not just disruptive; they’re existential. They threaten human distinctiveness and the significance of our everyday lives. Efforts to pretend that these effects are isolated will not work. It is high time to confront our continued existence for what it is and to embrace the pain that it causes.

International relations scholars and national security analysts, for all their differences about the extent to which emerging technologies alter the trajectory of great power competition, capture only one aspect of the new era. This matters greatly, as the United States and China seek to construct international orders underpinned by dramatically different conceptions of human nature and values. But this alone does not capture the full magnitude of the twenty-first century.

To begin meeting the moment, lessons can be learned from a time when intractable problems gave way to choices that yielded dramatic changes in humanity’s relationship with the natural world: the advancement of the modern scientific revolution.

The Modern Scientific Revolution

The modern scientific revolution succeeded because of individuals who allowed themselves to undergo a personally painful shift. In the face of intractable problems, and problems with apparent solutions that tempt common intuitions, figures like Galileo and Newton chose to lower, and reconceptualize, their expectations for what their accounts of the natural world could explain. Philosopher James McGilvray describes this shift as a recognition that “nature rarely comports with commonsense intuition.” Galileo, Newton, and others adopted, in the words of one observer, “a willingness to be puzzled about things that seemed entirely simple and obvious.”

The modern scientific revolution conveyed three core lessons.

First, a recognition that the nature of the world is often bizarre and counter-intuitive, and efforts to explain it depend on a willingness to be puzzled about it.

Second, a willingness to be puzzled requires that individuals be ready to make the choices necessary to doubt their intuitive perceptions of the world—choices that are often personally painful.

Finally, by making these choices, and accepting one’s lowered intellectual stature, the nature of one’s challenges, paradoxically, become more manageable over time.

It is easy to forget these lessons, assuming they have been learned at all. Social scientists in any discipline, for example, may lament how complex their objects of study are, but this is the wrong thing to lament. Physics has been so successful not merely because of what it studies, but because it took the first step required for a science to mature: a willingness to be puzzled about the natural world. This basic lesson holds true in the new era of technology and geopolitics.

Scholars, analysts, and observers of political life today should also be aware that pre-scientific figures, like René Descartes, only took it upon themselves to create new sciences of the natural world because it was recognized that what previously reigned supreme in the court of ideas—commonsense ideas about how parts of the world interact—rather than explaining everything, in fact, explained very little. The real work began once intuitive explanations came to be seen as obstacles.

None of today’s problems will be solved through genius alone, nor will the next international relations theory or jargon-laden national security doctrine allow us to confront the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, which are as personal as they are intellectual, just as the successes of the modern scientific revolution were as personal as they were professional. Like any historical process, the development of modern science was a complicated business, but all too often we “build bridges over rich swamps of historical detail,” neglecting the key, unique choices made by individuals.

Individual but calibrated choices were at the center of Galileo’s and Newton’s progress. They can also be at the center of efforts to confront the fourth industrial revolution and twenty-first-century political life. But the modern scientific revolution teaches that what is needed “is not a wide open mind, but a mind that is open just enough, and in just the right direction.” Lowering one’s expectations is not a defeat, but a way of allowing oneself to become confused by the situation. Fourth industrial revolution technologies demand this of us. It is a choice that cannot be forced, reflecting a value upon which liberal societies are founded. These societies should take heed of the magnitude of the new era and the value of the modern scientific revolution in confronting it.

Vincent J. Carchidi is an Editorial Intern at the National Interest. He holds an M.A. in political science from Villanova University and he specializes in the intersection of technology and international affairs. His work has also appeared in War on the Rocks, AI & Society, and the Human Rights Review. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense.