Think of the following situation: you were recently promoted to a leadership role in your area, and you are working side by side with HR to design a development path for all the collaborators on your team for them to develop their career in the digital world. You are undecided between 3 types of formats:
- Create a specialized trail on digital technologies such as SEO, Digital Marketing, Big Data, and Machine Learning, the so-called “hard skills”.
- Create two separate tracks: a technical one focused on “hard skills” and a behavioral one focused on “soft skills”.
- Create a mixed program combining hard skills and soft skills with philosophy, neuroscience and sociology.
Let me just start by saying that there's no right or wrong answer. This is nothing but a mental exercise that will even be, in some way, answered with the content of the episode that will bring a statement from the author. Given the title of the episode, which highlights the importance of philosophy today, you can only imagine what my choice of answer would be, right?
Yuval Harari is the protagonist of the week. He is an Israeli history professor and author of three international bestsellers that I love: Sapiens: Uma breve história da humanidade, Homo Deus: Uma Breve História do Amanhã, e o último 21 Lições para o Século 21.
In this next sentence, he tells us about the importance of philosophy in the Digital world:
“You know, issues like free will, like the meaning of humanity – philosophers have discussed these topics for the last few thousand years, with almost zero impact on the rest of humanity, because it was, in most cases, irrelevant. It didn't really matter what you thought about these topics. But today, these problems have suddenly become practical, engineering, and policy problems. That is why this is the moment for philosophers, historians, people of the humanities, to expose themselves and talk about these themes because it has become very, very urgent”.
Let's just imagine that there is a teleportation technology that takes us to Ancient Greece, more than 2000 years ago, and that we can witness a speech by Socrates, standing in the audience side by side with his disciple Plato.
I'm sure you would be fascinated to see Socrates use his method called maieutics, which is based on asking questions, in order to find fault with the discourse of the intellectual adversary. In maieutics, the interlocutor proposes a definition or analysis of some important concept, and Socrates raises an objection or offers counterexamples, then the interlocutor reformulates his position to deal with the objection. Socrates raises a more refined objection, and so on.
Socrates fundamentally used dialectics to discredit the knowledge claims of others, and by revealing the ignorance of his interlocutors, Socrates would also show how to make progress towards a more adequate understanding of topics such as morals and ethics.
But let's face it: most of us, and modern society as a whole, see these debates as a huge waste of time, don't we?
Philosophy has always been seen as an abstract, intangible discipline that brings little in the practical act.
I'm going to ask you now to jump back to out present day, and instead of sitting in a Greek arena, you're sitting in a Tesla meeting room side by side with Elon Musk and a bunch of engineers.
At the moment they are addressing an ethical dilemma which is this: If forced to choose, whom should a self-driving car kill in an unavoidable accident?
Should the vehicle passengers be sacrificed to save pedestrians? Or should a pedestrian be left to die, in order to save a family of four in the vehicle?
We are talking about a tough dilemma, but it's the kind of decisions that more and more engineers, developers, and somehow, every professional has to make nowadays. That is, decisions on how to make the best use of technology considering the dilemmas it brings.
But there's a problem: in the digital world, which accelerates so quickly, engineers don't have the necessary time available for long and lengthy philosophical discussions: they need to make decisions soon, in that 1-hour meeting window.
In the example above, to get closer to an answer, researchers at the MIT Media Lab analyzed more than 40 million answers in an experiment they launched in 2014, and which they published 4 years later in the journal Nature.
People were presented with various scenarios. If a self-driving car sacrifices its passengers or swerves to hit:
- a successful entrepreneur?
- a wanted criminal?
- a group of elderly people?
- a herd of cows?
- pedestrians who, at the moment, were crossing the street when they were told to wait?
The results suggested that people would rather save humans over animals, save as many lives as possible, and tend to save the young rather than the elderly.
There were also lesser tendencies to save women rather than men, save those of higher status rather than poorer people, and save pedestrians rather than passengers.
The researchers even found cultural differences in the decisions people made. People in France were more likely to weigh the number of people who would be killed, while those in Japan placed less emphasis on it.
Take a good look at the dilemma here: what should the automaker do? How to program your software? And even, what should governments do based on this?
Germany has already introduced a law that states that driverless cars must avoid injury or death at all costs. The law says that algorithms should never decide what to do based on the age, sex or health of passengers or pedestrians.
Okay fine, but what if it happens: who's gonna be held account? The car company? And how is it punishable, criminally?
These are all very important issues that leaders, entrepreneurs and people actually have to address every day, regardless of the industry they work in. Do you know why? Because technology today is embedded in every business, and we can't help but consider the implications it has brought.
So why is philosophy so important in today's world?
First, because the number of ethical and philosophical dilemmas that technology has brought is enormous, such as the conflict between privacy and data.
Second of all, because philosophical reasoning is something that artificial intelligence cannot yet replace, and represents a differential for human beings who practice it.
And third, because the more obvious reasoning of logical deduction does not work.
The famous Italian philosopher Luciano Floridi, my countryman, argues that we are living a 4th revolution after Copernicus, Darwin and Freud, because the barriers between our online (connected to the internet) and offline (outside the digital sphere) worlds are disappearing; now we move within the whirlpool of the “infosphere”, living a “life in life” (everyday lives are lived simultaneously between the two worlds).
While shopping, taking care of our health and dealing with social relationships, we are interacting with the world of law, finance and politics. In each of these facets of life, technologies now represent an inescapable environmental force.
The emerging technological landscape, with its immediate digital benefits, requires intellectual responsibility that, according to Floridi, is not yet palpable or institutionalized in academia, but is on the streets. There is an air of anticipation and concern at the same time, about how technology is changing the world. Changing the way we see the world, ourselves and others. Do technologies enable us or control us? Can we benefit from new technologies without allowing the network to take over us? These are some of the questions that come up.
More and more tech companies are hiring philosophers and people from the humanities. In the case of Tinder, one of the most important people even at the beginning of the app was Jessica Carbino, a sociologist who, in addition to matching Tinder with Sean Rad, the app’s founder, was hired to help better understand the changes regarding relationships.
When I was at school, in Italy, I studied philosophy by reading the original texts of the great thinkers Romans, in Latin, and Greeks, in ancient Greek, and I consider this one of the most important pillars of my understanding of the world today - even if, I admit, during that time I constantly asked myself why I was in that class, with professor Pino Draperi, that was the name of my professor in Savona.
Turns out it is crucial to understand more about philosophy, and for that reason, I'm going to launch a practical challenge: take the ethical dilemma between data and privacy.
The most important privacy legislation in recent years is the GDPR, whose philosophy behind GDPR is fundamentally that users have the right to determine how their data is used and stored, empowering privacy.
There is a catch though: if companies have more of their data, they will initially be able to deliver better experiences and personalization, as they better know about their preferences. Think of the healthcare industry and how this would change: the more real-time data that doctors and hospitals know about, the better they can help prevent diseases.
So I want you to take a momento to think: to what extent does a better experience with companies compensate for giving up data and privacy? And more importantly, who owns this data?
Think about it as a homework, and reach me out so we can talk about it.