by Charles Lhuillier

Innovation, artifacts, technology and machines have gone hand in hand with mankind since its very beginnings, indubitably fostering development and progress while simultaneously fueling unlimited fantasies. Even though other species of the animal kingdom demonstrate their own forms of intelligence and are able to make use of tools, the exceptional capability of abstraction and the associated mastery of diverse forms of technology are differentiating markers of the human race. A lot of innovations allow humans to thrive and from undersized two-legged monkeys made them the ultra-sophisticated and ultra-dominant kind that we know today.

Nature has had its share in this development through evolution ̶ the most fundamental and probably infinite type of innovation based on the trial and error principle ̶ but also as a great challenger and source of inspiration. Nature dictates our basic needs such as sleep, food, safety or social interaction, while also providing the elementary condition for their fulfillment that being a life-compatible environment, and helps us match them through natural evolution. The appearance of technological innovation brought an additional layer and tremendously accelerated that process of adaptation to nature.

Technology is not neutral, and choices related to certain technologies should therefore involve collective decisions for the benefit of the majority of people.

For a long time, technology mainly responded to the necessity of adaptation and facilitated the interactions of humans with nature. If fire was brought to earth by lightning according to Lucretius, it soon served man to warm its shelters, cook its food and repel wild animals. And so, became one of the earliest technologies that allowed humans to improve their well-being and overcome natural barriers. Fire, however, also possesses a great destructive power and may be the cause of dramatic disasters if used in a certain manner, either intentionally or by accident.

The wings of Icarus represented his salvation, but eventually brought him down. This ancient myth reminds us that technology has long been the object of unrestrained fantasies pushing man towards the limits of its natural world, while embodying inherent ambivalence. Over the course of history, every major technological innovation has proven its duality by contributing to the so-called progress, while at the same time causing variable amounts of pain and disasters. Wood, stone and later iron weapons, were a major improvement allowing our ancestors to hunt bigger animals and to defend themselves against dangerous predators. At the same time, they became the instruments of war, which has been an age-crossing evil and shaped most ancient as well as modern societies. Gunpowder was first invented for its medicinal properties but was soon used to create tremendously deadlier weapons. Each ground-breaking technology brings great power and the control of such technologies by a certain group of people, as well as the associated choices, are crucial. Whoever controls technology obtains a greater control on society. Technology is not neutral, and choices related to certain technologies should therefore involve collective decisions for the benefit of the majority of people.

God is dead, in the words of Nietzsche. The invention of the steam engine, and the successive industrial revolutions led to a dramatic change of paradigm. The promise of a paradisiac afterlife as a reward for a tough life of labor on Earth, where God was responsible for all the unexplainable, either good or bad, is slowly replaced by the faith in a perfect life on earth, beyond nature, beyond God. Progress becomes the new religion, as mankind has definitively subdued nature, with all the associated damages to our environment from which we begin to feel the consequences nowadays. But men themselves become machine enslaved, and those who possess the machines wield the power. War becomes an industry and technological innovation serves its purposes in the interests of a minority. As knowledge progresses towards the infinitely small, the mastery of nuclear energy becomes possible. Nuclear power fulfills the electricity needs of millions of people today. But it also led to the greatest and most horrifying conflict of human history to an end in a very brutal manner – with the historical power demonstration of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings.

The ultimate destructive power of nuclear weapons changed the nature of the interactions between great political powers. The Cold War was the last shudder of a world that was defined by the fear and control of material destruction, where societies were shaped by wars, and technology used in that purpose. Today, technological breakthroughs dematerialize. The boundaries of nature are extended to a new virtual world, war has been replaced by trade, that is amazingly accelerated by worldwide Internet and countless high-speed physical routes. Consequently, States started to lose some of their power to the profit of giant technological companies, that are fed by the common belief that technology will make the world a better place. New data-driven technologies allow the achievement of an unprecedented level of automation, that make many tasks now achievable by machines, relieving people from fatiguing activities, as well as from their jobs. These technologies are eager in material resources and do not solve per se the energy-climate challenge that is intensified by the multiplication of the exchanges of all kinds, with the associated energy and fuel consumption and their impact on the environment and the climate.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a technology that was built based on algorithms that mimic the way our brain works. Thus, such algorithms enable the learning mechanisms, based on their experience, and can then master specific tasks in a “smart” way. AI is especially valuable in processing and analyzing large sets of data, such as images (as set of pixels), texts, or other databases. Great advances were made or are expected in medicine for the detection of illnesses on medical images or biological data, environmental conservation through the detection of certain natural events such as wildfires from satellite images, and many other fields. But this technology also embodies the threat of societal manipulation, control, and liberty restrictions, through face recognition, profiling, and other usages. Most importantly, the entities that control those technologies as well as giant databases with personal data do not necessarily respond to the interest of the general population. It is in their interest, though, to create a need and a fascination for those technologies and that virtual world. While AI could provide significant efficiency improvements in numerous domains, and thus contribute to the general well-being by letting the machines do the boring work and allowing us to focus on the important things, as well as relieving the pressure we exert on the environment, the control of its uses is a prominent issue.

As soon as we answer to the needs of the machine, we cross frontiers that may be hard to cross back. According to the researchers in the field of AI, the ultimate human technology will be Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) that is, a machine that is no longer specialized, but is able to autonomously handle tasks of all natures and learn from its experience by rewriting its own algorithms. Such an entity would be more than just another technology, since it would be able to perform virtually every task much faster and in a more efficient way than a human could, and it would be able to make its own choices. Many questions are to be discussed within our societies, to make decisions on the future of such a post-technological era, where man has become the Creator.