Running counter to the current discussions in the media, which often take a rather transhumanist direction, sometimes even a determinist, if not an outright dystopian tone, Alexandre Cadain has taken on the role of ensuring a humanist, optimistic debate about this controversial tool. He argues that it is our responsibility to direct the uses of AI towards positive goals so as to basically “give artificial intelligence a soul”. Here we shed some light on a view that is not often heard but gives us hope for the future.

You began your talk with the story of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods on Mount Olympus and gave it to humanity. Does that mean you believe that artificial intelligence is a double-edged sword?

Alexandre Cadain is Founder & CEO, AI XPRIZE Ambassador & Co-Lead Postdigital Program ENS Ulm. We met him last April in Paris during the tech event.
Alexandre Cadain, Co-Lead Postdigital Program ENS Ulm

Alexandre Cadain

Yes, to be honest, I do – just like all tools. We often hear people say that artificial intelligence is a dangerous technology. The link I’ve made between fire and artificial intelligence is basically to remind us that fire was the very first technology. And ever since the Prometheus story, all technologies have in fact been amoral, i.e. outside the realm of morality. It’s the use to which human beings put a given technology that will decide whether our intentions turn out in the end to be good for us and the environment. What interests me is to think about and decide how we can control the fire; how we can avoid the misuse of artificial intelligence – how, in short, Man can orient AI towards positive uses, using fire to keep warm rather than to burn himself. In fact, today we seem to be the new Prometheus, it’s us who are giving this new fire to the machines we’ve already created. This is a role reversal and we need to understand the power – and therefore the responsibility – that we’ve taken on.

You always speak with great optimism. How can we use AI to do things better?

Yes, I am an optimist. I have more belief in humanity than in machines, which are only our puppets. I tell myself that if we remain optimistic, together we’ll end up focusing our energies properly, instead of dissipating them as we’re doing today by believing, with less reason for doing so, that Terminator-style dystopia is on the way! I think we need this counter-argument, this countervailing movement. I’m in charge of the AI-based radical innovation sourcing project, exploring potential AI futures with IBM Watson and the XPRIZE Foundation Europe. We’ve chosen 150 teams worldwide who are committed to positively impacting a billion lives in different areas with AI by 2020. We hope to be able to find answers to the great challenges facing the planet and its human inhabitants. 

robot equality!

Will robots be our new companions?

For example, in the field of medicine, we’re advising and supporting projects working to give blind people the sensation of seeing, to improve sleep, and to prevent chronic illness. But we’re just as committed to combating climate change by developing ‘human computing’ systems that can help achieve real-time optimisation of the use of our clean energy resources. On an individual level, AI can help us in our private lives. One example is the Replika app, an artificial intelligence programme that we can confide in and become friends with. Of course, this may seem a bit strange, but a number of Replika users have, paradoxically, successfully used the app to bring them out of profound solitude and get them back into having a social life. They’ve gone through a machine to do that! Of course, this use of AI is not an end in itself. I haven’t yet fallen in love with a robot or chatbot. On the contrary, what I’m saying is that AI might at the end of the day prove to be a way for Man to rediscover himself. Like in the film ‘Her’, where the lead character falls in love with a machine, which in the end enables him to return to life in society as a stronger person.

In 2017, aren’t we in fact in an era of digital Renaissance with a capital R, like the humanist Renaissance of the 16th century?

Yes, indeed. And when we kicked off our Post-Digital programme at ENS, I talked about the digital Renaissance. We’re living in extraordinary times because we’re in a phase of worldwide renaissance that enables us at any moment to see what it is that we need to figure out and to see, at the intersection of the various different fields that are underpinned by digital technology, the various directions we might take. We should also seize on this unique moment in time to get back into utopia mode and look beyond the immediate challenges that are now stacking up so as to give free rein to our creative imagination. What annoys me most is that while we’re right at the point where we might yet build a wonderful world for ourselves, people of our generation seem doggedly determined to develop apps that let you find the cheapest beer in the neighbourhood! When I see young people straight out of top-rank educational institutions developing algorithms for techno-gadgets, I find that very disappointing. So yes, there is a digital Renaissance, or rather a unique opportunity for the ultimate Renaissance, which we’re perhaps wasting because of our basic distrust.

Are we also at a critical moment in time, what the Greeks call ‘kairos’?

That’s exactly right, but today I prefer to use the Japanese ideogram for the word ‘crisis’, which comprises at the same time the notions of danger and opportunity. That’s really where we are, we’re at a turning point. I usually say that we’re permanently between utopia and dystopia but that in parallel we also find ourselves in a state of lethargy where we don’t take honest decisions. Especially in Europe we’re at the crossroads of civilisations but we continue to produce huge amounts of incremental, Darwinian, linear innovation when we have an opportunity to create radical, deterministic, exponential innovation – not doing a 10% repair job on the world but instead multiplying it tenfold.

We often hear in the media that in the future Man will be replaced or even controlled by Machines. What’s your view?


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This fantasy generally arises from the potential for a powerful general intelligence when what we have is a fairly weak specific intelligence, i.e. AI systems that work in certain specific fields and which go beyond human understanding only in areas relating to memory, repetition and precision. Creativity, emotion and human liberty are not about to be overturned by the current generation of algorithms! The fact is that it’s not really a matter of being replaced. Yes, there are jobs where machines are replacing people – mainly in areas where repetitive tasks or analysis are needed. And in fact, both the bottom and the top of the pyramid will potentially be affected, from the person at the checkout to the dealer in the trading room. But the real question is more how we work with machines. We need to build first-rate Man-Machine complementarity. We have the ingenuity, the ability to create and orient ourselves, which means we can work differently. I’m passionate about this question of a new chain of intelligences. This summer I’m leading a working group at the United Nations, in which we’re discussing the displacement, or the replacement, of human intelligence. There’s no doubt that we’ll hand over the job of calculating, we’re already increasingly ‘farming out’ our memory, that’s for sure. And why shouldn’t that be a good thing? I think we’re denying ourselves the right to think about these things, we’re polarising the debate because we’re afraid of transitions and this one will certainly be very painful. But further down the line I see something very wonderful.

Why, in your view, are people almost viscerally anxious when it comes to AI?

Even before we even mention artificial intelligence, I think it’s probably easier to be afraid than to be happy. It seems to come easier to us to paint a black picture than to depict blue skies. That’s a mechanism we use to protect ourselves. It’s part of our instinct for self-preservation. We see it every day. The television news is always negative. Whenever there’s an accident, we rush over to see the victims. We’re drawn by the promise and the risk of demise. With AI, this anxiety is multiplied because, ever since Frankenstein, we’ve been afraid of creating something that will just take over. I would say that this is almost a matter of original sin. We’re building something that is perhaps bigger than all of us. We’ve become the masters and owners of nature due to our intelligence, which has evolved and adapted. But today we’re endowing the creature we’ve created – the machine – with intelligence. The anxiety comes from the feeling that we’ve been overtaken. Once again, it’s a question of shifting, rather than replacing, skills. Our intelligence will serve other purposes, so we need to prepare the ground.

You said that we need to give artificial intelligence a soul. Is that an artificial soul or a soul that Man lends AI?

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The latter, of course. The ‘Anima’ project that I’m working on with XPRIZE and the United Nations uses a Latin word that means both ‘breath’ and ‘soul’. The idea is to breathe life into the inert bodies of our cold calculating machines. As with a puppet, behind the machine there’s always a person, someone inside the system that commands the machine. That’s the place for the soul. And this guiding breath will flow from our collective responsibility.

By Laura Frémy