Artificial intelligence: Are we on the brink of a new era?

Artificial Intelligence 09:52

I used my holiday time to watch the film "Oppenheimer" by Christopher Nolan, the biopic about the "father of the atomic bomb". I can only recommend this captivating biographical historical film, not only because of its cinematic quality, but above all because of the questions it raises. These are still extremely topical and once again demonstrate the importance of the mission to which the SATW, among others, is committed: an assessment of the impact of new technologies on society - in other words, on us. 

You may now be thinking that the atomic bomb and the technologies that concern us today are worlds apart. I agree with you. However, we are currently witnessing the development and use of technologies that will fundamentally change our relationship to the world, our view of it and our thoughts about it. To name a few concrete examples: Artificial intelligence (AI) is already invading our lives, as is neurotechnology; new tools are also emerging that can be used to influence our genetic make-up and our thinking, or that can sweep us into a digital vortex, as it were. 

All our considerations in connection with our work as engineers relate to scientific responsibility, which is proving to be much more complex than one would generally assume. The Oppenheimer film illustrates this very impressively. On the one hand, there are the science fanatics who do not ask themselves any moral or simply human questions. On the other side are those - including none other than Einstein - who simply refuse to participate in the construction of a weapon of mass destruction. But the fronts were not rigid at the time, and the closer the completion of the atomic bomb came, the more palpable the doubts became. Some of those involved therefore entrenched themselves behind doctrines: the project was directed against the Nazis and not against humanity, it served as a deterrent and was not intended for use. And finally the military's sharp reply: "You scientists had the task of delivering the bomb, but we will decide on its use from now on" ... even at the risk of wiping out humanity - because the scientists considered this danger to be quite real.  

The film deals with a very specific development in a world of physicists, but the same problems also affect many other disciplines such as biology and medicine. Where is the red line that must not be crossed? Consensus is difficult to find, both in a global context and among individuals, because everyone is driven by different ambitions, and these can blind them and lead them to no longer realise their responsibility as human beings.  

It is not surprising that this film brings to mind the figure of the Titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods in order to bring it to mankind. Since Zeus, the father of the gods, felt betrayed, he condemned Prometheus to be tied to a rock and have his liver eaten out of his body by an eagle every day, which then renewed itself again and again at night. An endless agony that introduces guilt for the first time in relation to human progress, symbolised by fire ... which the director of Oppenheimer in turn takes up with the words of Strauss, member and later chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission: "Genius does not automatically mean wisdom." But who takes on the role of the father of the gods in our world? ... and protect people from a future full of anguish? The SATW? Certainly not single-handedly - but the SATW sees it as its task to recognise potential problems, to evaluate the risks and benefits of technological developments and to ensure that the public has a trustworthy framework for our research work. 

Benoît Dubuis 
President of the SATW 

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