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Living Culture and Artificial Intelligence

Ramu Damodaran, Chief of the United Nations Academic Impact


New York, May 26, 2021

I must have been in the eighth grade when our high school teacher, Father Pat Rebeiro, introduced us to the distinction between culture and civilization which the French author Amaury de Riencourt had put forward some years earlier, in which he expanded upon the idea put forward by Oswald Spengler earlier in The Decline of the West that, as Ben Espen has paraphrased it, “civilization is the “late” phase in a society’s life. It follows the period of “Culture,” when society creates its characteristic science, religion, art, and politics. “Espen goes on to suggest that “culture is pioneering, aesthetic, and fertile. Civilization is sterile, extensive, practical, and ethical.”

Riencourt wrote in the 1950s, shortly before Sputnik bridged our inner and outer worlds, and before the extraordinary demonstrations of a world resurgent, a world “pioneering, aesthetic and fertile” demonstrated the futility of demarcating cultures and civilizations by national or continental boundaries. Migration, the ease of collaborative research beyond the physical proximity of the researchers, and the unexpected fertility of foreign lands to greatnesses once thought indigenous to a specific national home, have allowed us a world whose civilizational moulding and moorings constantly yield a chorus, a confluence, and, indeed, a co-mingling, of cultures. Where, in this excitement and effervescence, does artificial intelligence (AI) fit in?

A good point to begin that reflection is the assertion by Governor Michael Dukakis of the character of AI, the absence of its applicability to the “too many judgments you have to make in this world that involve values, ethics and morality.” As bedrock principles, these would appear civilizational in character, the enduring geology which cultures infused but never supplanted, cultures which by the very being of their energy and spontaneity could well ignore, go beyond, reinvent —-or, yes, conform to —- values, ethics and morality. Speaking in Ho Chi Minh city (HCMH) two years ago, Ousmane Dione, World Bank Country Director for Vietnam, noted that while “ AI mimics how the brain works “, there were three key factors to measure the possibilities of its successful use in that historic city ; “setting clear and realistic expectations for where and how AI can deliver for HCMC, ensuring that there is an enabling environment for AI to succeed in practice, especially when it comes to accessing and integrating the data needed to solve the city’s challenges and, finally, making sure that we understand and manage any key risks associated with AI.”

Within the cultural space, the most self-evident area of risk posed by AI is, as Baptiste Caramiaux has written, in the challenge by “AI-generated content to authorship, ownership and copyright infringement. New exclusive rights on datasets must be designed in order to better incentivise innovation and research.” That said, as he continues, “AI challenges the creative value-chain in two ways: shifting services performed by humans to algorithms and empowering the individual creator.” It is that empowerment that will, in my view, remain one of the two greatest possibilities for AI to enhance the individual, as much as global, cultural experience.

In 2016, Microsoft, with academic and corporate partners, launched the “Next Rembrandt” project which “imprinted the AI “with 346 of Rembrandt’s known works in the hopes that it could create a unique 3D printed image in his style. An algorithm measured the distances between the facial features in Rembrandt’s paintings and calculated them based on percentages. Next, the features were transformed, rotated, and scaled, then accurately placed within the frame of the face. Finally, we rendered the light based on gathered data in order to cast authentic shadows on each feature.” The cumulative result was a product that could well have been the final work by the storied artist of the Renaissance.

Using that illustration as metaphor, one can foresee the power and possibilities in AI to create cultural experiences beyond ready human capacity, through its innate strengths of recognition, selection and assimilation, experiences that can extend to the creative and performing arts, the auditory aspiration of recreated music (think of Beethoven’s nine symphonies being fashioned into his unwritten tenth; we have a precursor already in the 2019 venture in Linz, where a performance of Mahler’s unfinished tenth symphony was followed by a six minute software composition in his style ), or a syncretic architectural fantasy that echoes Egyptian pyramids as evocatively as it does the Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Here AI is an enhancer of, and not a threat to, human enjoyment.

Corollary to this is the expansion the judicious use of AI will afford the culturally creative individual; even if its mimicking of the human brain will not allow it to become the brain itself, and happily not, it can through that process of inference and imitation address many of the more mundane aspects of the creativity while also suggesting options and possibilities for the original human brain to explore.

The cofounding by Governor Michael Dukakis and Nguyen Anh Tuan of the Boston Global Forum (BGF) of the “Artificial Intelligence World Society” (AIWS) launched “a project that aims to bring scientists, academics, government officials and industry leaders together to keep AI a benign force serving humanity’s best interests.” The idea of an AIWS would strike a particular chord for the United Nations which had looked at the idea of a “world society” in its very first years with UNESCO’s encouragement of “teaching about the United Nations and its specialized agencies since, together, these form the greatest contemporary effort, on an international, governmental scale, to move towards a world society. A booklet including some suggestions for teaching programs on the United Nations in the schools of Member States…was considered…at the UNESCO seminar at Adelphi College, New York.”

“World society” is an elegant phrase that has not acquired the reiteration it deserves; I was reminded of it when reading an article by Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus of Adelphi, where he writes “One of the most important goals of education is to learn how to reflect, how to learn from our experiences. An early experience that has stayed with me was finding small wooden signs along the paths of the camp I attended when nine years old. The signs were about three inches by seven inches and had the word “Others” carved into the wood. They were intended to inspire those walking the paths to be considerate of others, welcome others, and listen to others, no matter what their station in life. Others. Respect others. Listen to others, no matter what their station. Reflect on what they say. It may help solve a problem you never thought about.”

Those last four words point to the second possibility I sense in the power of AI to enhance the individual, to allow her the possibility to summon experiences untested and untasted from the moorings of the felt and familiar, to find in the ‘others’ that Bob Scott mentioned, ourselves. Much as the often irritating pop up advertisements that promise “if you like that you will love this”, AI can, with the voluntary consent of the online seeker, bring to the proximity of her desk or lap beauties unexplored with a confidence in their appeal that only objective algorithmical analysis can assure. And making distant cultures proximate, seeing their evanescent echoes in one’s own, is the essence of a world society.

The truth that such a society ought  to be both a physical and a spiritual concept is reflected in what BGF describes as a “sophisticated pioneer model: a combination of the virtual, digital AIWS City and a real city”, the model being Phan Thiet in Viet Nam, developed by the Nova Group in that country whose Chairman, Bui Thanh Nhon, described it as “ the place for the World Leadership Alliance-Club de Madrid and the Michael Dukakis Institute to hold important annual events marked by the theme of ‘Building a New Economy’ for the world in the digital and artificial intelligence era, a venue to announce new achievements in the history of artificial intelligence and the digital economy.” It is critical to acknowledge the cultural dimension to the “new economy” through the creative sector, so much of its component cultural; as UNESCO notes, it generates “annual revenues of US$2,250 billion and global exports of over US$250 billion. According to recent forecasts, these sectors will represent around 10% of global GDP in the years to come.”

Speaking at the Riga Conference 2019 in Latvia, Tuan referred to the “need for a new social contract, one that is suited to a world of artificial intelligence, big data, and high-speed computation and that will protect the rights and interests of citizens individually and society generally. A fundamental assumption of the social contract is that the five centres of power – government, citizens, business firms, civil society organizations, and AI assistants – are interconnected and each needs to check and balance the power of the others. Citizens should have access to education pertaining to the use and impact of AI,” a thought reflective of what Governor Dukakis said at a BGF March event, of the possibilities of “new ideas, initiatives, and solutions by thinkers and creators in an effort to build a civilized, prosperous, peaceful, and happy world,” ‘creators’ an apt term to define those who say their skills and talent enhanced, and not threatened by, AI.

Forty years ago, Carl Sagan wrote: “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

AI has taken that proof a step further, affirming in the process the linear connection between human capability and magic, affirming that magic would not find itself possible of realization without the humans that shaped it, extending inexorably and wondrously the pledge in the United Nations charter to the “dignity and worth of the human person” whose measure only the human person herself, through innovation, experiment and daring, can expand.