The Cultural Paradox of Artificial Intelligence

By Thomas Keil

With the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), more and more ethical and moral questions arise. One of the most common is the extent to which we want to automatically let algorithms make decisions.

From Robo-Advisors to optimize our investments to self-driving cars, there are possibilities everywhere in modern analytics that will make human decision-makers superfluous. What will be left for us to do? This discussion goes far beyond technological issues and must be conducted on a broad basis; it affects us all.

That’s why I am with the Heidelberg cultural anthropologist Dr. Stephanie Sommer from KulturBroker. She advises organizations on the implementation of research and development projects, innovation management and dealing with cultural change. Her most recent projects have centered on digital transformation processes and technological progress.

Stephanie, what does “Artificial Intelligence” mean to you? Is it a promise or a threat?

I think that, among other things, AI means that software, in combination with “smart things”, will be able to do a whole range of activities that we genuinely thought would—and could—only ever be done by people.

It can see, hear, speak, compose poetry, give directions, filter potential employees and life partners, control industrial plants, means of transport and household appliances, conduct business and serve customers. Until recently, most people would have said that these activities could never be done by machines.

As citizens, I would recommend that we demand transparency and traceability from companies, the scientific community, public institutions and politics.

It is promising in several ways. For example, it could decrease the number of tedious tasks to be done or, for example, promise profit maximization, cures for disease, a longer and healthier life or victory in the fight against climate change.

That said, there is very little proof that this promise will ever be fulfilled. At the same time, at least in the German media landscape, there is concern about the effect of AI on work. We do not currently have a viable social model beyond gainful employment.

As a result, AI is perceived as a threat, especially where people are being replaced by AI applications in the workplace. The same applies if AI is able to replace what we might call special gifts, such as those of a composer or game player, or where professionals have worked for many years to acquire knowledge and skills.

In most cases, however, AI is now so deeply embedded into our everyday lives that its presence is taken for granted and barely even perceived. I am glad to see that there is a broader public debate opening up on the subject. “Businesses should consider AI projects in technological, economic, and socio-cultural contexts” says Dr. Stephanie Sommer

What are the really complex questions that we need to address?

On the one hand, AI is fundamentally about the question of how it changes our everyday lives, our coexistence and our humanity. On the other hand, AI applications raise practical, legal, moral and ethical issues. Some of these questions have been discussed in a recent Technology Review.

Let’s take the example of health insurance, which now uses AI applications to check that I am doing enough for my health. Do I want to change my current lifestyle to stay healthy? Should I voluntarily submit to behavioral control from my insurance?

Is the health insurance company even allowed to do that? What happens to my data? Should health insurance companies and their AI be allowed to say what a healthy and desirable life looks like? What about those people who have no time or resources to take care of their health?