10/20/23 · Institutional

Philosopher Marina Garcés and researcher Andreas Kaltenbrunner open the academic year with a discussion on artificial intelligence

Garcés: "AI must be the context in which we act, think and transform the world"
Kaltenbrunner: "Rather than discouraging us from thinking, AI should help us think"
marina garcés and andreas kaltenbrunner

Photo: UOC

Philosopher Marina Garcés, a member of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and Andreas Kaltenbrunner, lead researcher of the AI and Data for Society (AID4So) group at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) opened the UOC's academic year 2023/2024. They did so with a discussion – "Rethinking intelligence to rethink ourselves. The emergence of generative AI as a chance to think about ourselves in a new light and try to understand what defines us as a species" – moderated by Sílvia Sivera, director of the eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC). The event also featured Àngels Fitó, the rector of the UOC, alongside Helena Guardans, president of the Standing Committee of the university's Board of Trustees, and Joaquim Nadal, Minister for Research and Universities of the Government of Catalonia and also a member of the Board of Trustees. The event, which was held at the UOC Campus, was streamed live on LinkedIn and YouTube.

The discussion was enriched by the different approaches from the two sides – more philosophical from Garcés and more technological from Kaltenbrunner – and started with a reflection on the concept of intelligence. In Garcés's opinion, "where artificial intelligence has really succeeded is in its name, because it places the key word of human aspirations, which is to define ourselves as intelligent beings, at the heart of technological development". According to her, anthropocentrism – the idea that one species is superior to the rest because of its ability to know, understand and manipulate the world – has constructed a notion of what makes us human that we are now projecting onto this new entity as if we were looking into a mirror. "If I had to define the current situation, I'd say that, on the one hand, we're just taking another step in this human power struggle in relation to intelligence, but there's also another way, which involves ousting human beings from this position of assumed superiority over all other beings," she said.

Kaltenbrunner posited that the greatest challenge of working with AI is probably how to evolve with it and co-create with it. Along the lines of the notion of intelligence as different types of intelligence in a hierarchy, he wondered whether AI can really be a superior intelligence and what consequences this could lead to. He explained that "we can already see that this is the case" in some areas. He gave chess as an example, where even the best players in the world "don't stand a chance against the algorithm". This is why, according to him, "we must think about whether this is a problem and we're scared of it or whether we'll simply use AI as a tool, in the same way that we use calculators, which can calculate faster than us and we can use to boost our own capabilities."

An extremely human debate

Beyond the concept of intelligence, which is usually the focus of the debate when talking about AI, Garcés also placed the focus on artificiality, which implies that "we, humans, are natural beings" while the things we produce – our works, productions and technologies – are "non-human and alien". According to the philosopher, "this concept is completely wrong" but is consistent with our fears around AI and with a certain vision that something from outside is infiltrating our brains, our minds and the "natural" way in which we experience the world. "This idea that the natural elements of human beings are being invaded goes back to dangerous essentialistic ideas that had already been debunked, both philosophically and politically," she warned, while noting that a much more interesting and possibly even more "human" way of looking at our essence would be to see it as "this ability of ours to relate to very diverse and changing environments in a creative way and gain some sort of understanding of them […] Let's get there with our full ability, not to be invaded to a greater or lesser extent, but to make it where we act, think and transform the world," she said.

Kaltenbrunner talked in more depth about the concept of AI as a tool, mentioning some of its possible positive consequences. Going back to the chess example, he noted that players are much better now than before AI, because they can train against a very sophisticated algorithm. In addition, he explained how AI can help address some imbalances: "Some people are better at science than art, and these tools can, for example, help someone with little knowledge of English produce a good text in that language." Garcés pointed out that seeing something as a tool entails the risk of "assuming that every tool is neutral". Against this idea of neutrality, she shared her opinion that AI, as it is being developed in our context, is a "highly political" device and that, as political subjects and subjects of knowledge, we must work out "not so much how to use it or protect ourselves" but "how to be part of it".

The two experts agreed that there are many subjects behind AI, and that the question of who is key when it comes to considering what we want this device to be like. "Do we want it to be just like us and, therefore, to have the same biases as us? Or do we want it to be better? And, if so, who decides what's better and what characteristics it should have?" asked Kaltenbrunner. He shied away from demonizing biases, which he defined as necessary in some cases, but clarified that we must "clearly understand" the risks. He also pointed out the danger of "humanizing" systems: "You think of it as an entity with its own reasons, but that's not really the case: it's just an algorithm. We must always bear this in mind for both the good and bad aspects: AI lacks its own values or goals. Someone has given it these values and this appearance."

Explaining AI in order to understand ourselves

In the last part of the discussion, which focused on knowledge, Garcés summarized the general feeling about artificial intelligence that guides people's everyday lives, making us live "between a sense of urgency that makes us hurry to adapt to it and the paranoia that makes us run in the opposite direction." "What we must ask ourselves is how to escape from this dual reaction," she said, convinced that it is here that universities can make the greatest contributions, because "they are exactly where all this knowledge aims to become universally available, collectively desirable and debatable under conditions of equality".

Kaltenbrunner stressed how, far from being merely a subject for study, AI is increasingly being used to carry out research. He used the case of computer science papers as an example of this: ten years ago, only 10% of papers used AI, compared to today's 25%. He stressed that "this tool is often used to produce new knowledge" and noted that "this has significant ethical implications that cannot be ignored, particularly because it could hinder reproducibility, which is a key issue in science".

As for his own area of specialization, research in the field of AI, he said that the most important thing is that "interdisciplinary research" is carried out. And, although he believes that the UOC is very well-positioned in this regard, he also warned of the difficulties involved in carrying it out, "because algorithm experts often feel that others are encroaching on their field". He said that the purpose of the research should be to provide explanations: "I believe that we must be able to understand where the results yielded by algorithms come from, and people should know what they can and can't do." Finally, he again referred to the way we define the various concepts around AI and concluded that "all this research can be used in the future to gain a slightly better understanding of what we're like" because, if eventually "we do end up with artificial intelligence that has consciousness," for example, "we'll have to redefine the concept of consciousness and rethink what constitutes intelligence and how we measure it".

The UOC marks the start of a new era with three strategic lines

The institutional welcome for the new academic year at the UOC, which is starting with over 66,600 enrolments on bachelor's and master's degree programmes, was given by the rector, Àngels Fitó, who took up her position in April and who set out the three lines that will guide her term in office. She first stressed the entire university system's common need "to synchronize our evolution as institutions with our social function. […] The second challenge affects the UOC directly and is basically the need to ensure our viability, resolving our legal status and agreeing on a funding model that is viable, and fair and proportional to our mission." Finally, she highlighted the need for strong and clear leadership with room for different points of view: "This university we have conceived will only be feasible if we can develop a clear, functional and up-to-date governance model; if we are committed to ensuring that all voices, sensitivities and expertise can take part; and if we perfect what we already have on the basis of dialogue, trial and error and the wish to improve and be active agents of knowledge."

Helena Guardans, chair of the Standing Committee of the FUOC's Board of Trustees, presented the video report for the academic year 2022/2023, which was marked by the end of the term of the previous rector, Josep A. Planell, and the start of Rector Fitó's term. Guardans highlighted the UOC's constant accountability over its almost three decades of existence. "Leaving evidence of what you've done enables you to operate in an adult, responsible and objective manner. Being accountable means that you know where you stand, as well as your strengths and weaknesses, your potential and limitations," she said.

The last speech was delivered by Joaquim Nadal, Minister for Research and Universities of the Government of Catalonia, who talked about the university's role. "The Government wants the UOC to be a university of Catalonia, at the service of Catalonia and of the entire universe of students who study at it. And it wants it to be a university that spans the public and private spheres: public due to the political will of the people that back it, but with all the features of a private institution in order to achieve its mission," he said.

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