(Reflections at the opening of the Platform for Ethics and Politics of Technology dd November 13th 2020)
Let me first congratulate the initiators at the University of Amsterdam with this important new Platform for the Ethics and Politics of Technology! A wonderful initiative indeed.
I am happy to be given the opportunity to pose a question to this Platform at its inauguration.
Let me start with a kind of reflection:
If there is one thing we came to realize over the past year, then it must be the realization that we live in a tremendous complex world and that we are surrounded by complex systems: from a biological cell, made of thousands of different molecules that seamlessly work together, to our society, a collection of seven billion individuals that try to live together, to the millions of computer systems that should work together.
All these complex systems display endless signatures of emerging order, disorder, self- organization and self-annihilation. Understanding, quantifying and handling this complexity is without any doubt one of the biggest scientific adventures of our time!
Now this realization that everything is connected to everything is not new, from Lao Tse (in Tao Te Ching) to Benedictus de Spinoza (in Ethica) philosophers have pondered on this inter connectivity and asked themselves questions on how to act in that web of interwoven causes and effects.
(Benedict de Spinoza (1665): ‘Every part of Nature agrees with the whole and is associated with all other parts’.)
But then in the 20th century something special happened with the invention of the internet (and the internet of things) resulting in the ubiquitous presence of information. Suddenly the ties became more tight, the links more abundant and with an unprecedented speed we all added physical, social, economic, behavioral, emotional information into that treasure trove we now call the internet.
About the same time my field of research -complexity science- emerged in a tiny corner of the world in New Mexico where the Santa Fe Institute was pulled together by Nobel laureates, to quantitatively study these complex adaptive systems. This research is done by combining Baconian inductivism (data science, now called AI/ML) with Popperian reductionism (models and experiments) using computer simulations. This type of research into cause and effect across interwoven processes is making massive progress. Some of which is – I am happy to say- also coming from the Institute of Advanced Study here at the University of Amsterdam 12.
The consequence of all this is that, more than ever, we are able to integrate data and models and concepts from all disciplines into integrated systems that can be used to answer ‘what-if’ questions and to explore through numerical simulation the consequences of physical, infrastructural but also social and political interventions in the systems that build up our society. Think of behavioral interventions in our healthcare system, our economy, our way of handling the energy transition or the climate crisis.
The result is a kind of policy by simulation.
Which brings me to my research questions for PEPT:
Given this reflection I am pretty sure that we might soon know how to nudge people and their behavior in a way that will improve our quality of life, that might save our biodiversity, spare our scarce resources, feed the hungry, give migrants a home and build a healthy resilient society. We have come already a long way, but we now have the technology and the opportunity to move much faster and much more efficient by exploiting this interdisciplinary knowledge.
BUT, a very big but… nudging people’s behavior can be a great thing from a collective point of view but completely unethical from an individual perspective. So how to resolve this ethical disparity? And … if this nudging can happen then it will happen… that in return begs the question; Should the politics be an active agent in that process or be passive and just provide guidelines?
I sincerely hope that the PEPT initiative will consider to put these questions on their to do list, not tomorrow but now, as the need is already here and the time to act is now!