EspriTech de Genève: Nexus between technology and humanity

Published on 28 August 2023
Updated on 11 July 2024

Animated GIF of EspriTech de Geneve

At our last stop of the summer journey ‘Recycling ideas’, we come to Geneva, a meeting place of technology and humanity for centuries. The city’s role is gaining new relevance as we find ourselves at a turning point, facing both changes and challenges triggered by fast technological growth. Once again, humanity steps out of its comfort zone into the new unknown: certainty ends, opportunity begins, and risks increase. 

As we stand at this crossroads, literal and intellectual work through the streets of Geneva can help us understand the broader context for decisions to be made. 

In the Old City, you can find some of the landmarks of the tech-humanity journey: from the Calvin Auditorium (Auditoire de Calvin), where the interplay between progress and society was discussed, to within a few steps, at Grand Rue, where Rousseau was born, and at the next corner, the house where Borges died.

Just up the hill from Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. You can visit Voltaire’s chateau in the nearby commune of Ferney-Voltaire, named after its most famous resident.

In this episode, we will first revisit the ideas and works of philosophers and writers born or living in Geneva. After that, we will outline the 12 principles of EspriTech de Genève.

This text is based on the Geneva Digital Atlas 2.0, published in November 2022. You can find comprehensive coverage of historical and contemporary technological developments in Geneva at the Atlas’s portal.

John Calvin: Balance between individual action and social responsibility

 Photography, Face, Head, Person, Portrait, Art, Painting, Adult, Male, Man, Text, Jehan Cauvin

John Calvin1John Calvin was born on 10 July 1509 in Picardy (France). He converted to Protestantism and fled to Geneva. His thinking shaped Protestant reform thinking and became influential worldwide. and his teaching, Calvinism, have profoundly impacted political, economic, and cultural life in Europe and the USA, as explained by Max Weber in his seminal book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.2Weber, M. (2005). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930). London: Routledge, p. 175.Calvin’s idea crossed the Atlantic with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower ship, shaping the foundations of American society and ultimately arriving after centuries in Silicon Valley, the venue for technological developments.

The central role of human agency and its accompanying responsibility3Stückelberger, C. (2009). No interest from the poor. Calvin’s economic and banking ethics. are two key pillars of Calvin’s social thinking. Striking the right balance between them is critical for societal stability and progress. 

Like other Protestant thinkers, Calvin was enthusiastic about science and knowledge. If we want to change society, we have to first understand it. At the same time, Calvin called for moderation and caution in pursuing scientific advances, which were later echoed in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and currently in calls for the responsible use of AI and biotechnology.

Calvin’s balance between human agency and social responsibility has been tilted in Silicon Valley towards the former. The tech industry could benefit from Calvin’s opus by striking a more balanced view of business and society. It would also help in ‘uplifting’ their social roles.

Calvin argued for universal education, including for girls, which was revolutionary in the sixteenth century. Later on, another Genevan, Rousseau, put education at the center of his philosophy. 

Charles Bonnet: Nature and early neutral networks

 Photography, Art, Painting, Face, Head, Person, Portrait, Adult, Male, Man, Valentin Haüy

Charles Bonnet, born in Geneva in 1720, was an exceptional polymath. His many academic interests included being a naturalist, a botanist, a lawyer, a philosopher, a psychologist, and a politician. Bonnet was an early boundary spanner, crossing disciplinary delimitations. This approach facilitated his far-reaching insights way ahead of time. 

In 1789, by building on the idea of neural networks, he envisaged AI by arguing that machines could mimic human intelligence.4Bonnet, C. (1789). Betrachtung über die Natur. W. Engelmann. 

In his Essai de Psychologie (1755) he describes the concept of neural networks:

If all our ideas, even the most abstract, depend ultimately on motions that occur in the brain, it is appropriate to ask whether each idea has a specific fiber dedicated to producing it, or whether different motions of the same fiber produce different ideas.5Bonnet, C. (1755). Essai de psychologie. Londres.

For more on Bonnet and neural networks, consult Trends in Cognitive Sciences.6Mollon, J., Takahashi, C., & Danilova, M. (2022). What kind of network is the brain? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 26. His theory of associations, which contends that associations are how ideas connect in the mind, served as inspiration for the development of early theories of neural networks.

This idea was further developed by the American psychologist William James and the British philosopher John Stuart Mill.

As a keen observer of nature, Bonnet identified numerous patterns and interesting phenomena. He found that the leaves on a plant stem are arranged to match the Fibonacci sequence. He was interested in how math could be used to describe patterns in nature. 

His work was largely forgotten until it was rediscovered in the early twenty-first century.

Jorge Luis Borges: Limits of human knowledge

 Photography, Face, Head, Person, Portrait, Adult, Male, Man, Accessories, Formal Wear, Tie, People, Text, Jorge Luis Borges

Borges chose Geneva as his home and, ultimately, the place where he is laid to rest. As one of the leading writers of the twentieth century, Borges was the master of discovering paradoxes and addressing irreconcilable contradictions in human existence.

He rarely provides answers in his writings. Instead, he takes us on a journey, showing that every certainty triggers a new uncertainty. Borges’s work gives a sobering look at the human condition and the limits of reason when solving personal and social problems.

His fiction is inspirational reading for addressing the core questions of humanity’s future, centered on the interplay between science, technology, and philosophy. His short story The Library of Babel,  written in 1941, is prophetic; it outlines the search for meaning in endless volumes of information, as we do today on the internet. Borges wrote:

‘Nonsense is normal in the Library and that the reasonable (and even humble and pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception.’7Borges, J. L. (1970). The library of Babel, in J. L. Borges, Labyrinths. Penguin. 

The truth exists somewhere in Borges’ library but is almost impossible to find as it is overwhelmed by irrelevant information, fake news, and competing narratives. 

In addressing informational chaos, Borges shies away from giving a naive hope of certainty. Still, he does provide some hope: he advocates for order in chaos and argues that by taking an occasional rest, we can stop, or at least slow down, the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of meaning. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Social contract theory

 Photography, Face, Head, Person, Portrait, Adult, Male, Man, Art, Painting, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born in Geneva on 28 June 1712, was one of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment. His most influential works were The Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract.  The call of the UN Secretary-General for societies worldwide to work on social contracts, addressing profound changes in modern society, renewed the relevance of Rousseau’s thinking. The Social Contract will be vital as we try to answer critical questions about modernity and our future. 

According to Rousseau, social contracts are not formal contracts signed on the dotted line by all citizens. They are representations of the general will of all citizens around a few key principles. At the heart of a social contract is a way for people to regularly participate in public debates and decision-making. It is much more than an occasional vote. 

Rousseau’s social contract demands citizen involvement in civic and political life. His home city, Geneva, has come close to his ideal of a lively and engaging democracy.

Rousseau also argued that sovereignty stays with individuals, not the state. This idea could be important in the current conversation about digital sovereignty, which usually means that states have control over digital networks and data. If we apply Rousseau’s thinking, digital sovereignty should be based on people’s right to control their data and digital assets. 

The question of a social contract was popular among other Enlightenment thinkers.

Hobbes, for example, in his Leviathan proposed a less demanding form of the social contract on citizens than Rousseau’s.8Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. Citizens were supposed to give their natural rights to a sovereign (state) in exchange for the state guaranteeing their safety. 

Ferdinand de Saussure: From linguistic patterns to AI

 Head, Person, Face, Photography, Adult, Male, Man, Portrait, Mustache, Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure was a Geneva-born linguist whose book, Course in General Linguistics (1916) became the cornerstone of modern linguistics.Published by Saussure’s students from lecture notes after his premature death.9de Saussure, F. (1916). Course in general linguistics.  Saussure’s work on language and systems laid the foundation for natural language processing (NLP) and modern AI. 

Saussure’s pioneering linguistic research on identifying language patterns and relationships between signifiers and signifieds (i.e. words and their meanings) is key to understanding how NLP systems can map words and other linguistic units to the concepts they represent, allowing them to perform tasks such as text classification and machine translation.

The conceptual bridge between Saussure and the latest AI developments is represented in Alan Turin’s paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence.10Turing, A. M. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, 49, 433-460.

Mary Shelley: Ethics and scientific progress 

 Photography, Face, Head, Person, Portrait, Adult, Female, Woman, Art, Painting, Lady, Text, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

The British writer Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein in 1816 at the Villa Diodati in Geneva. With Lord Byron and a group of friends, Shelley came to Geneva for better weather, as Geneva typically has more sunny days than London. This was not the case in 1816. That year, both cities missed the summer weather because of the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. 

Shelley was a big fan of science and experimentation. She believed that science and technology could improve the human condition. However, she also recognised these new technologies’ potential for abuse and misuse. In this way, Shelley brought into focus important questions about the ethics of progress and how to use scientific knowledge responsibly. 

Even though technology and society have come a long way since 1816, the dilemmas people faced then are still relevant today. How far can technology go in affecting core human features? Are there ethical limits to technological development?

Voltaire: Technology as an enabler of freedom

 Photography, Face, Head, Person, Portrait, Text, Art, Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), better known as Voltaire, was one of the key figures of the Enlightenment. Voltaire lived in Geneva and the neighbouring village of Ferney-Voltaire, named after him, between 1755 and his death in 1778. His major works include Candide, Philosophical Letters, and a Treatise on Toleration. Voltaire is still the symbol of Enlightenment philosophy based on reason, critical thinking, and scientific inquiry.

He was a strong advocate for the advancement of science and technology. Voltaire thought that everyone should have access to knowledge and that progress in science and technology should help society. He frequently criticised the church and state for hindering scientific progress in his writings. 

Voltaire supported Newton throughout his life and insisted on using facts and evidence in social sciences and public life, drawing inspiration from Newton’s empirical science and other works.

Liberty and freedom were crucial to Voltaire’s philosophy. He argued that freedom of thought is a fundamental human right. He also advocated for freedom of expression and freedom of religion. In his historical works, he often championed the cause of oppressed peoples and fought against tyranny.

I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it, is often attributed to Voltaire. Although there is no proof that these are his words, they capture the core of his philosophy of liberty very well.‘11In 1943, Burdette Kinne of Columbia University published a short article in “Modern Language Notes” which contained an important letter Hall sent to Kinne in 1939. Hall stated that she had crafted the saying and not Voltaire: The phrase “I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it” which you have found in my book “Voltaire in His Letters” is my own expression and should not have been put in inverted commas. Please accept my apologies for having, quite unintentionally, misled you into thinking I was quoting a sentence used by Voltaire (or anyone else but myself).’ 

Voltaire’s advocacy of critical thinking and engaging debates is just as important today as it was a few hundred years ago. Most current debates online are shaped by division, biases, and false information. 

12 Principles of EspriTech de Genève

L’esprit de Genève, which refers to the city’s tradition as a place for peace, tolerance, international cooperation, human rights, and inclusion, is the source of inspiration for EspriTech de Genève (the tech spirit of Geneva). 

Robert de Traz coined L’esprit de Genève in his book of the same title12De Traz, R. (1929). L’esprit de Genève. B. Grasset. , where he traced the origins of this concept to Jean Calvin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Henri Dunant.13The meaning of the term humanism has fluctuated according to the successive intellectual movements which have identified with it. In our research, humanism is an approach centred on three aspects of human existence: life, dignity, and agency. 

At the core of EspriTech de Genève is humanism, a philosophical and ethical approach that is centered on human beings, individually and collectively. We summarise it in the 12 values, principles, and approaches explained below. 

1. Human life and dignity 

Geneva’s enduring humanitarian values stand strong, safeguarding human dignity and life. Amidst the digital era’s advances, pivotal questions arise about what defines us as humans. Protecting human life is a core value in religious texts, political statements, and laws. 

In Geneva, the question of human lives and technological developments has come up in negotiations on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), often called ‘killer robots’. In LAWS negotiations and other policy processes, there is consensus that decisions on life and death in armed conflicts should rest with humans. Even though this consensus is sound and strongly endorsed, it is still unclear how it will be implemented in a world where AI, drones, and other high-tech weapons are making war increasingly automated. The ICRC has been working on bringing clarity to this matter via awareness building, training, and developing policy guidelines. 

The question of what it means to be human becomes more central as biological and digital technologies like brain-machine interfaces and neural technologies advance. 

Virtual reality (VR), such as the metaverse, is another way to alter our perception of the physical space in which we live. Immersive VR may make our bodily experience less central to our identity. Changes in human embodiment will also impact human dignity and alter our identities. The development of metaverse VR will raise a new set of questions:

What will our real identity be between virtual and real spaces?  

Will we retain free will as a key pillar of our identity? 

How will our different identities be reconciled when AI technologies start ‘optimising’ us? 

Will technology ‘tolerate’ our inherently human imperfections? 

Whether they are inside us, like implants and biotech changes, or outside, like the metaverse, these challenges to human embodiment and dignity will speed up discussions about the future social contract.14Erin Green argues that dealing with AI meaningfully should be anchored in understanding that our ‘embodied experience shapes all reasoning, both theological and technological’. In Green, E. (2020). Sallie McFague and an ecotheological response to artificial intelligence. The Ecumenical Review, 72(2), 183–196. doi:10.1111/erev.12502

L’esprit de Genève, which puts people at the center of technological and scientific developments, gives Switzerland and Geneva a place for these critical discussions. 

2. Freedom and the right of choice 

As a city of refuge for the persecuted and dissidents from all over the world throughout history, freedom has always been of great importance in Geneva.  At the core of freedom is the right of choice in personal, economic, and political life. The ability to choose is essential for human dignity, well-being, and societal progress. The right to choose is realised through freedom of movement, thought, expression, and religious practice, among other things. 

For a long time, the internet has been a major enabler of choice by helping people overcome geographical, social, and other limitations.15Switzerland proposed the concept of digital self-determination as a way for citizens to be empowered on all matters related to their personal data. 

But digitalisation started to have a big impact on the right to choose, from governments and tech companies censoring and filtering online content to more advanced ways of limiting our choices in the name of “optimization” (the idea that AI should know better than us what is good for us, from choosing partners to buying goods to making political decisions). With awareness of these risks, UNESCO has called for assessing the ‘sociological and psychological effects of AI-based recommendations on humans’ decision-making autonomy’. 

Civic space and freedom of information are also impacted by the tendency of tech platforms to foster ‘bubbles’ and binary atmospheres in debates framed as ‘my opinion vs. wrong opinion’. The space for free and civic discussions has been shrinking worldwide. Critical and alternative thinking is often missing in public debates at a time when it is badly needed. This ideological shift creates fertile ground for mis/disinformation. There is a growing need for free, neutral discussion spaces. Geneva can provide such spaces, not only in diplomatic settings but also in public or academic debates.

In the digital age, many societies seek the best way to balance individual freedom and social responsibility. Geneva’s long history since Calvin’s time could be a good example of how to do this. The rule of law and respect for the common good could help us come up with solutions that give people as many options as possible while considering the needs of our communities and society as a whole.

3. Openness and inclusion

Openness and inclusion have been fundamental characteristics of Geneva for centuries. In the digital realm, openness and inclusion flourished in the early years of the internet, with more people getting connected. However, these trends have been slowing down recently, and there is a risk that they could be reversed with increased Internet fragmentation. Thus, there is a need for a renewed push for digital openness and inclusion.

The open-source movement, for example, should play a more important and active role in developing digital infrastructure and apps.

Digital inclusion is more than just being connected and accessing the internet. First, access should be affordable. But what’s even more important is that the full use of digital potential requires the right digital skills, multilingualism and content in local languages, and the participation of women, youth, and other parts of society that have been left behind in the past or since digitalisation began.

All of these aspects of inclusion should be considered holistically. For example, development assistance for increasing connectivity and internet access should be paired with aid for improving digital skills, creating enabling environments (like policies, regulations, and institutions), and addressing all other aspects of inclusion comprehensively.

Geneva is home to many entities that work on various aspects of digital inclusion, such as the ITU, which works on connectivity; the WTO; and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which works on e-commerce and the digital economy. As a well-known donor country, Switzerland has a long history of helping small and developing countries effectively and impactfully. This convergence of International Geneva and Swiss development assistance could facilitate a holistic approach to digital inclusion worldwide.

4. Diversity and subsidiarity

Diversity starts with our uniqueness compared to other human beings: age, gender, race, culture, religion, profession, and other aspects of our identity. Diversity is also about our local communities, regions, and nations. Respect for diversity is key to building a prosperous, inclusive, and harmonious society. 

As diversity nurtures innovation and creativity, it has helped spur many digital developments. Since its early days, the internet has been a key promoter of diversity because it connects people worldwide. However, tech platforms have made it easier for groups to form “echo chambers,” or places where people with similar views stay together and don’t hear other ideas. Diversity in the digital world may not have a bright future because tech companies may put profit ahead of diversity and other non-commercial values.

The principle of subsidiarity ensures that policy decisions get close to the people who are affected by them. Subsidiarity could also prevent abuses by higher-level authorities while contributing to administrative and policy decentralisation. Geneva and Switzerland have a long tradition of diversity and subsidiarity. 

5. Progress and well-being

Science and technology are the main driving forces behind progress aimed at improving societal well-being. Since Calvin’s era, support for science and progress has long been a tradition in Geneva. Voltaire and other thinkers also saw science as a force for progress. Today, it’s no surprise that the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN), the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), and the University of Geneva are among the most prominent scientific institutions in Europe and beyond.

As the link between scientific progress and human well-being is often contextualised around Agenda 2030, Geneva-based scientific and UN organisations have been working on using science to realise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) dealing with health, food, poverty, climate change, and more. 

During the pandemic, the link between digitalisation and human well-being became much clearer when most societal activities were carried out via digital networks.

6. Trust and confidence

Trust and confidence are values that resonate strongly with Geneva and Switzerland. Switzerland is a country with a high’ trust capacity’ in the fields of engineering, finance, education, and governance. Trust in the online domain is as important as it is offline. It is the social glue that binds people, communities, and countries together. It helps improve societies’ well-being, success, and stability by reducing conflict and making it easier for people to work together. 

There are many levels of trust and confidence in the digital space, from trusting the technology itself to trusting the companies that develop and provide the services or products to trusting the governments that should protect our rights both online and offline. 

Trust in technology, the government, and tech companies is built through clarity about the roles and responsibilities of digital actors, participation in creating digital policy, oversight (especially of actions that could affect rights and freedoms), and confidence-building measures between countries and digital communities. 

Technology itself – as it has been argued in the case of blockchain – could facilitate trust and confidence. While the search for the ‘automation’ of trust continues, Geneva and Switzerland should focus on contributing their traditional trust capacity to discussions and processes focused, for example, on protecting data, ensuring cybersecurity, and finding future digital governance solutions. Some projects, like the Swiss Digital Initiative’s Trust Label and Trust Valley, are examples of such efforts.

7. Peace and security

In Esprit de Geneve, peace has a central role. Geneva has been the place where many peace negotiations have been conducted throughout history. It also has a vibrant role in other peace-related activities: mediation, conflict prevention and resolution, peace-building, etc. This connection between peace and security can be clearly seen in the work done by international organisations in Geneva.

But peace also goes beyond security, as it is more than just the absence of violence and conflict. Peace requires a comprehensive approach to human development that addresses the root causes of conflict; such an approach would result in greater stability and less social inequality. 

Digital technology impacts all phases of peace-related activities, from focused ones dealing with conflict resolutions to a broader, more holistic approach to peace. The links between peace and digitalisation are highlighted across a wide range of activities in Geneva. For example, the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), Humanitarian Dialogue, the UN Office in Geneva (UNOG), and Swiss Peace have all started researching and networking on cyber mediation. Peace is central to debates on the cyber aspects of disarmament. The human rights community in Geneva addresses false information and hate speech, which are becoming more important to international peace and security efforts. 

8. Entrepreneurship and human agency

Geneva has been a trading post for centuries. It can be traced back as far as Roman times. Business dynamics have taken off since Calvin’s time, when he created a theological framework that encouraged entrepreneurship.

Today, Geneva has a strong banking sector, a fast-growing tech industry, and a lot of innovative start-ups. In the city’s tradition, the private sector has helped solve social problems by supporting humanitarianism and participating in activities supporting the SDGs’ realisation. 

Geneva is home to Fongit, one of Europe’s oldest and most successful start-up generators. It helps researchers from CERN, EPFL, and the University of Geneva turn research breakthroughs into business opportunities.

As tech companies worldwide look for the best ways to combine entrepreneurship and social responsibility, International Geneva has a few things that make it stand out: the Calvinist tradition of combining entrepreneurship and care for the community, a thriving academic and business scene, and an international governance space.

9. Environment and natural habitat 

Man argues. Nature acts. 


The interplay between the environment and digitalisation is at the core of modern governance. Progress and industrialisation have put a lot of stress on our environment. Because of this, the environmental agenda has become more important than ever, with issues like pollution, climate change, and protecting biodiversity. 

Digitalisation has both negative and positive effects on the environment. Examples of unfavourable effects include the significant energy use by data servers, which accounts for 2% of the world’s electricity consumption, and the extensive exploitation of rare materials to produce digital products, resulting in e-waste that harms natural habitats. On the positive side, digitalisation is used to find and track environmental problems and to model possible solutions for climate change, ocean pollution, overfishing, and many other problems.

In Geneva, the interplay between the environment and digitalisation is addressed in policy discussions on climate and weather (at the World Meteorological Organization – WMO), climate change (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – IPCC), pollution (the UN Economic Commission for Europe – UNECE), and environment (the UN Environment Programme – UNEP – Office for Europe). The main challenge is to promote more convergence between environmental and digitalisation policy spaces.

10. Solidarity and the common good

Solidarity and the common good have been important pillars of L’esprit de Genève, introduced during Calvin’s time and carefully nurtured for centuries. It is shown in the work of humanitarian organisations such as the ICRC and the support provided to the poor and migrant populations, who are the most vulnerable part of society.

Solidarity and the common good are becoming more important as societies worldwide try to restore social stability, which is increasingly shaken. Restoring social stability is not only about sorting out existing societal problems but also accounting for emerging ones. Regarding social media, online games, VR, and other online platforms, solidarity takes on a new shape and meaning. Empathy and emotions are nurtured in different ways in terms of both shape and depth. 

We are going through a rupture in the traditional, face-to-face social and emotional bonds people have had since the beginning of time. The ways we engage with others and develop emotional and social links will shape the social fabric of tomorrow, with far-reaching consequences for family life, law, and other aspects of society. 

Common goods are tangible aspects of solidarity in society. The concept of digital common goods (digital commons) is increasingly discussed in the context of data governance and AI development. The open-source movement places the common good at its foundation. Data and AI are discussed as common goods that could be used for sustainable development, reducing inequality, and promoting social peace.

11. Equality, justice, and fairness

Geneva’s religious, legal, and political traditions could be very helpful in figuring out how to deal with the effects of digitalisation on equality, justice, and fairness. Equality, justice, and fairness are important for keeping society together and making the economy and society work well. 

Today’s world isn’t as fair as it could be because digital technology tends to concentrate data and economic power in the hands of a few. As digital growth does not ‘lift all boats equally’, many communities are left behind. 

Inequality in the digital sphere takes multiple forms, such as unequal access to networks and devices (e.g., because of a lack of infrastructure or money), gaps in digital skills, and gender imbalances (e.g., men still tend to be more represented in engineering and computer industries than women). Language barriers and generational divides are also causes of digital divides. 

The search for justice and dispute resolution are also associated with Geneva’s legal institutions. In 1872, Great Britain and the USA came to Geneva to settle their dispute in the Alabama Arbitration, one of the first international legal arbitrations. Geneva is also one of the key places for companies to settle business disputes through arbitration. The adjustment of the arbitration system to the digital realm is gaining momentum. WIPO has set up a system for dealing with disagreements about internet domain names. Researchers and academics seek new ways to settle online disputes, like the University of Geneva’s Massive Online Micro Justice approach. 

Since AI apps can amplify biases based on race, gender, age, and other factors, fairness has become an important issue. Most of the time, AI is biassed because it was built using biased data that reflects a biased reality. For example, AI makes decisions on providing loans or prioritising patients based on a wide range of gender, racial, and age biases. In Geneva, academic institutions’ research and policy discussions on human rights should both address fairness in AI.

12. Compromise, trade-offs, and pragmatism

Achieving a win-win solution is the holy grail of public policy. But the reality is that we often end up with a zero-sum outcome in which some gain and others lose. Because digital technology has so many different technological, economic, moral, and policy aspects, good trade-offs are difficult to find.  Geneva has a long history of solving problems practically, often by compromising to find the best trade-offs.

This part of EspriTech de Geneve is crucial as the need for delicate trade-offs in the digital world grows. Here are some examples:

  • Freedom of expression vs. protection of public order. The well-known debate between Article 19 (freedom of expression) and Article 27 (protection of the public order) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been extended to the internet. It is very often discussed in the context of content control and censorship on the internet.
  • Cybersecurity vs. privacy. Like security in real life, cybersecurity may endanger some human rights, such as the right to privacy. The balance between cybersecurity and privacy is in constant flux, depending on the overall global political situation. After 9/11, with the securitisation of the global agenda, the balance shifted towards cybersecurity. Snowden turned it back to privacy. Currently, this balance is in a delicate flux.
  • Protection of authors’ rights vs. fair use of materials, a.k.a. intellectual property, is another ‘real’ law dilemma that has taken on a new perspective in the online world.

Geneva’s traditions and current policy environment favour finding trade-offs between digitalisation’s many and sometimes contradictory impacts on society.

Parting thoughts

Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one. 


We are at the end of this historical and contemporary walk through Geneva’s thinking and philosophical landscapes. Among the vast tapestry of ideas, traditions, and concepts, a few resonate in addressing the dilemmas we face today:

  • Calvin: the right balance between individual agency and social responsibility 
  • Bonnet: anchoring AI and tech developments in our natural habitus
  • Borges: limits of the human capacity to comprehend and know
  • Rosseau: the centrality of the social contract for stable and prosperous society
  • Shelly: risks of scientific progress for humanity
  • De Saussure: the power of language
  • Voltaire: technology as an enabler of human freedom 

This Geneva journey is just one of many that humanity has taken, and is taking, in search of formulas to deal with the impact of digitalisation on society. This search is happening worldwide, from local communities to national parliaments, from regional organisations to the UN. 

Geneva can contribute to the search for a social contract for AI and our future in general in a timely, balanced, and impactful manner.

Related resources

Load more
 Light, Advertisement, Poster, Lightbulb, Person
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog