Why the Humanities are Essential for Designing the Best Possible Technological Future

Clara Hausin: Why the Humanities are Essential for Designing the Best Possible Technological Future

The recent developments in artificial intelligence, human enhancement and biotechnologies are already having a dramatic impact on our daily lives as is reflected in the devices we use, the pills we take and the foods we consume. While some of these technologies clearly have the potential to increase the quality of human lives and positively transform the overall social conditions, there is a growing awareness regarding the risks and ethical dilemmas that come with the rapid technological progress we are currently experiencing.

It may seem obvious that the creation, assessment and regulation of these new technologies demand open-minded, inter- and multidisciplinary approaches, incorporating insights and skills from professionals from various fields and sectors. Yet, when discussing the process of ‘designing the future’ and establishing the respective organisational and governmental structures, the importance of including the expertise that comes with the thorough study of subjects like philosophy, history, literature, theology and art is often neglected, despite the impressive list of famous CEOs and visionaries with a humanities background.

Here are three reasons why this should change.

Clara Hausin is the Founding and Executive Editor of Delphi – Interdisciplinary Review of Emerging Technologies, a pioneering new platform for critical debates on the many opportunities and challenges created by technological progress. Bringing together authors with different professional backgrounds as well as opposing views, the international quarterly seeks to facilitate accessible conversations across disciplines and sectors. Prior to her position as Executive Editor, she was responsible for conceptualising and organising various international legal conferences and workshops, i.a. on European Data Protection Law.

She holds an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the Peter Szondi Institute, Freie Universität Berlin.

Understanding the Evolution of Human Value Systems

The avid reader of history books, literature and philosophy classics has witnessed the rise and fall of hundreds of empires, worlds and cosmoses. He understands the dynamic forces at interplay in geopolitics, human affairs and organisations. By carefully analysing large-scale turbulences and change across societies and centuries (be it by examining real world events or their transformation into works of art), he develops an understanding of the evolution of the various value systems, belief structures and world views that have been underlying human behaviour over time. Cultivating this kind big of picture understanding is crucial for everyone who wants to determine where mankind is currently at and where it is headed. When designing and assessing new technologies that might have the potential to irrevocably transform the human condition, we need to be aware of what our values are as individuals, societies and as a species.

Reducing Complexity

In the face of an increasingly complex world, evolving at an incredibly high speed, it is hardly a surprise that fake news, conspiracy theories as well as radical political and social movements, offering overly simplified explanations and solutions, are thriving. An education within the humanities enables future leaders to thoughtfully break down complex issues to their very essence and understandably communicate their findings to a wider audience, while at the same constantly re-evaluating their insights against the background of new discoveries, trends and paradigm shifts. These skills are essential when engaging in debates on sensitive and complex topics such as the design and regulation lethal autonomous weapons, the potentials and dangers of big data or the long-term implications of using genetic engineering in an increasingly competitive society.

Taking on Different Perspectives

While a degree in one of the humanities may not prepare us for one particular job, it does indeed prepare us for life, informing our understanding of what it means to be human.

Turning to philosophy, literature or art often helps us make sense of, or cope with, complex and profound concepts and experiences such as death, grief, loss, suffering and love, enabling us to eventually grow into more well-rounded and empathetic human beings.

Similarly, by learning a new language or contemplating scriptures of different religious communities, we can experience the world through foreign frames and concepts, acquiring an improved understanding of other cultures and their approaches to life.

Being able to put oneself into the shoes of other human beings and to take into account a variety of perspectives and mindsets is vital for making organisations and societies thrive in the long run, especially when facing the advent of life-changing technologies. For instance, how can we assess how psychoactive drugs, cognitive enhancers and genetic engineering should be regulated if we do not understand the spectrum of the joys and pains that shape the human experience?

While there is a consensus that the ‘hard skills’ that can be acquired by pursuing a degree in natural sciences are key for designing an exciting, safe and prosperous future, the necessity to consider insights from within the humanities still deserves wider attention. If we want to fully exploit the new technologies’ potential to improve the lives of individuals and positively impact social conditions, while at the same time responsibly handling the risks they may bring, their creation, assessment and regulation requires the knowledge and skills of well-read professionals, committed to sharing their understanding of the human condition and experience across times and societies in the most accessible and inclusive way.

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