Then there’s the tricky possibility (inevitability?) of one day inventing an artificial general intelligence (AGI) — a machine or system that can perform intellectual tasks better than any human can. This would require solving some very old problems in moral philosophy. Once again, it is engineers who are being relied on to program concepts such as goodness, benevolence and morality into the AGI. And if you believe, as some experts do, that the invention of an AGI poses a unique existential risk, then even our solar system’s very existence may well depend on engineers converging on the correct answer; furthermore, we may only be afforded one chance to accomplish it.
“I wish it would dawn on engineers,” wrote the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, “that, in order to be an engineer, it is not enough to be an engineer.” I, too, hope that my fellow engineers will take it upon themselves to start thinking clearly about what it means to be human. To the questions like “Is it more efficient?” and “How much does it cost?”, we must also ask: “Is it good? Does it contribute to wellbeing? For whom? By what standard?”
To critically reflect on the meaning of life and the future of civilization in this way is perhaps a new form of humanism. And, as is appropriate to our progressively engineered world, it is an approach in which engineers could — no, must — lead the way.
Pen and paper are rarely used by engineers today, so the iron ring no longer serves the same purpose that it once did. There’s no noticeable clang! when one works on a desktop, tablet or smartphone. Gone are the frequent reminders of our obligation to ethics.
Who knows — maybe in the end, despite all our best efforts, technology itself will find a way to obstruct any attempt of ours to instil more humanism into engineering.
Mark Bessoudo is research manager and sustainability consultant at WSP in Toronto. He is also founder of platoforplumbers.com. This essay was originally published in New Philosopher magazine, as the winner of the Writers’ Award XI on the theme of technology.
Article originally published on www.the-possible.com