Wouldn’t it be a big leap forward for climate and environmental protection if we could let a machine, a powerful artificial intelligence (AI) manage our consumption of natural resources? Remind – or even compel – us to buy local food instead of products from overseas? Tell us to take the bike instead of the car to work when air quality levels are low? Shut off streaming TV series when we have exhausted our weekly carbon budget? Or maybe even advise the government on the conversion of urban areas into much-needed cropland or the preservation of wilderness areas?
The role that digital technologies could and should play in resolving the environmental challenges facing humanity lay at the core of a collaborative project involving IASS research groups working on digital change and narratives of sustainability and the design collective N O R M A L S. Within this project, the arts and academia joined hands to explore the possible ethical implications and moral dilemmas that we face in a world of increasingly rapid technological change. In particular, the project aimed to generate awareness of the trade-offs that technological solutions – even those aimed at fostering sustainability – could (unintentionally) create. The project joined a series of IASS events that bring artistic perspectives into sustainability research, which is also one rationale of the IASS fellowship programme.
To spark critical thinking and make future scenarios more tangible, we used speculative fiction as an engaging method. Collective imaginaries play an important role in the interplay of society and technology (Jasanoff, Kim 2015). The actual feasibility of the fictional technology therefore played a negligible role in our approach; what mattered were emotions, fears and desires, and visions and beliefs relating to digital technologies. In order to unfold, emotions need to be anchored to a certain rational credibility – which they then in turn may reinforce to the degree that the boundary between fact and fiction begins to blur. The project was designed to test how far this could be taken with a well-informed audience, and thus to explore the scope of current imaginaries of digitalization.
In a first phase of the project, a workshop was held to prepare the core elements of the fiction. 15 participants from sustainability research and practice developed and discussed a variety of thought experiments about possible development paths related to digitalization. One of them centred on the fiction of a powerful artificial intelligence, called GaiAI, as a reference to Gaia, the personified Earth in Greek mythology and inspirational metaphor to an important strand of Deep Ecology (Lovelock 1988, Latour 2017). The AI was to collect and interpret vast amounts of data in order to devise and enforce regulations governing resource usage by individuals and companies. Its sole aim: to save nature.
Building on this core idea, members of N O R M A L S teamed up with IASS researchers to develop additional elements, such as a fictive European programme that would use GaiAI to improve the ecological footprint of human activity in the EU. These ideas flowed into a script for a panel discussion between speakers with fictional roles that was presented to a wider public at the Bits & Bäume Conference in November 2018. The audience, at first unaware of the panel’s fictional nature, witnessed a controversial discussion between the proponents and opponents of the GaiAI-based EU programme. The supposed experts and lobbyists argued about essential questions, such as how much power technology should be given to influence and decide about human action and which role culture and social values should play in designing it. Would we as a society be willing to give up certain liberties such as making free decisions about our (unsustainable) modes of living if it was for a greater good? To what extent should we entrust a machine with such important decisions? What consequences could this entail?
After the fictional nature of this debate was revealed, the speakers engaged the audience in a discussion about their emotions and thoughts and the moral trade-offs they identified. Among others, attendees raised the issue of whether such an AI could actually be objective or if it would naturally reflect the interests and flaws of its human builders.
During this discussion, the organizers distributed a questionnaire to the audience. An evaluation of the responses received showed that a predominantly young and tech-literate audience had found the fictional elements to be believable – especially the EU programme – and that they felt “entertained”, “confused”, but also “inspired” by the thought experiment. The respondents provided constructive feedback on the methodology and the implementation of the fictional panel, underscoring especially the wish for more information about the fictional elements. 60 out of 68 valid responses appreciated the idea of the fictional panel. As one participant wrote in the comment section of the survey, the use of fiction “makes you think about stuff you would never have considered yet but might become important in the future”.
The documentation of the project is now available on the N O R M A L S website.
- Latour, Bruno (2017): Facing Gaia. Eight lectures on the new climatic regime. Polity.
- Lovelock, James (1988): The ages of Gaia. A biography of our living earth. Oxford University Press.
- Jasanoff, Sheila; Kim, Sang-Hyun (Hg.) (2015): Dreamscapes of modernity. Sociotechnical imaginaries and the fabrication of power. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.