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Interview with Luciano Floridi : „We need a new definition of reality“

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Luciano Floridi Bild: Friedemann Bieber

Luciano Floridi is one of the most prominent thinkers of digital reality. He talked with us about the vanishing gap between online and offline, a new probabilistic mode of everyday cognition and round robots in square houses.

          Professor Floridi, why are people are so scared of the future these days? 

          It's a normal reaction to uncertainty. You enter a dark room and the first thing you think is: Is there something hiding there? It would be irrational not to be scared by something you don't know. The second reason is that we are more and more surrounded by technologies we don't understand. 

          But there were technologies in the past that we didn't understand. Take the telephone: It was believed that it would be a socially disruptive force, breaking down the barriers between public and private space. What is different now?

          The difference is that the new technologies we are developing are highly autonomous. Put together uncertainty and autonomy and it becomes reasonable to be a bit concerned about what will happen, e.g. if the thermostat heats the house while I am away. It means I will get a big bill. Should I be worried about this? Sometimes, yes. When uncertainty and autonomy come together in nuclear power plants, being worried is a good thing. But I don't think we get the balance right. We are swinging between the two extremes, a simple-minded Californian optimism – "everything is gonna be great!" – and the doom scenario – "everything is getting from bad to worse." The boring truth is in the middle, of course.

          The possibility of machine intelligence is talked about as the ultimate form of human progress as well as a threat to our existence. Stephen Hawking suggested we should escape into space before AI takes over. Are such fears justified? 

          Are AI a danger for the job-market? Yes. Are they a danger in terms of who controls what? No. To some extent the whole debate about AI taking over is, in the best case, naïve, and in the worst case it's a suspicious way of taking the responsibility away from the humans behind the machines. Why not talk about the real problems?

          What would the real issues be?

          We should focus on the implications on human life. Not in terms of superintelligence taking over, that's science fiction. One of the main reasons the technology works is because the world is adapting to it, is becoming IT-friendly. We should remember that the technology we are building becomes more and more successful because we are adapting the environment towards it. Here is an example: We have a robot that cleans our home, Roomba, it works amazingly, but it doesn't go under the sofa. So we are thinking about buying a new sofa. It's us adapting to Roomba. Next thing, the house has corners, but Roomba can't go in corners. Do we buy a new house? The fact that we are adapting environments to machines is one of the things we should be considering.

          Yet, you argue in your book, The Fourth Revolution, that the way we think about the future is still too anthropocentric considering that machines have outsmartedus in a variety of ways.

          Yes, it's staggering how anthropocentric our current view is. If we see a machine achieving a task, then we think in terms of our intelligence. If we consider ethical actions, then we put our only interests at the centre of the debate, not the whole environment. And we can see where this leads: We are, literally, on the brink of making this planet uninhabitable. Maybe it's time for a change.

          But isn't the human being in a special position compared to everything else?

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