On the threshold of the AI Axial Age
Updated on 02 November 2023
We stand at the brink of an AI-driven Axial Age, poised to grapple with the sweeping changes propelled by technological advancements. This impending epoch promises rapid and all-encompassing transformation, influencing everything from individual lives and family relations to vast economic and political landscapes. Our societal bedrock is shifting, heralding inevitable turbulence. We must trace the path that led us here to truly comprehend the challenges ahead. This narrative seeks to root the contemporary era in the age-old dance between humanity and technology.
Resonances from the Axial Age
German philosopher Karl Jasper introduced the term ‘Axial Age’ to delineate the historical epoch spanning from 8 BC to 1 AD. As per Jasper, it was a time when “the spiritual cornerstones of humanity were established, both simultaneously and independently, in regions as varied as China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece.1Jaspers K., The Origin and Goal of History, p. 1.” Remarkably, these cornerstones continue to support the edifice of human civilisation.
Within a few brief centuries, human thought and spirituality found expression through a plethora of religions and philosophical systems: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in India; Taoism and Confucianism in China; Zoroastrianism in Persia; the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in Greece; Judaism and Christianity in the Middle East; and Ubuntu in Africa. The advent of Islam a few centuries later further enriched this tableau. Collectively, these belief systems forged a societal ‘operating system’—one that continues to influence the present.
Subsequent intellectual movements, like the European Enlightenment, layered additional nuances onto this rich tapestry of thought and culture. Now, as we stand at another pivotal moment, we must delve deep into this heritage to grapple with looming questions:
Will AI usurp human agency? Can humans retain the reins of our civilization’s ‘mission control’? Will our age-old moral compass, distinguishing right from wrong, endure in a digital age? And what must we do to ensure both technological and societal evolution?
Our quest for these answers might herald a new Axial Age that reshapes our understanding of human existence and the fabric of society.
Conversations in households, academic forums, religious assemblies, and political venues are shaping the foundations of the AI Axial Age. The questions being asked are challenging ones. They touch upon our purpose, identity, and ethics.
Amid the burgeoning discourse on AI, myriad interpretations and uncertainties exist, ranging from terminological mix-ups to fundamental conceptual misunderstandings. While some sound the alarm on potential threats to humanity, governments are caught in the whirlwind, often pushed into reactive measures without fully grasping the situation. For example, we’ve witnessed hasty bans in the educational realm. Additionally, some AI regulation proposals stem from a cocktail of genuine concerns and vested interests aiming to carve out AI market dominance.
What’s evident is that the AI dialogue transcends mere technicalities. It is about the kind of future we want to build. The outcome is not certain. Future historians might write it.
Emergence of the AI Axial Age
Building blocks for AI Axial Age are emerging from debates in homes, academic circles, religious institutions, and the political arena. The questions being asked are challenging ones. They touch upon our purpose, identity, and ethics.
As thousands of views on AI flourish, there needs to be more clarity, from terminological to conceptual ones. Some are warning about the risk to humanity. Governments are forced ‘to do something’ without understanding what is going on. Knee-jerk bannings in education were happening. Some proposals for the control of AI are inspired by a mix of realistic concerns and vested interests to create new market monopolies.
The United Nations and the AI Axial Age
Mentioning the UN as a hub for discussions on the AI Axial Age might raise eyebrows. Despite its legitimate authority, the UN often comes under fire for various shortcomings, from maintaining peace to upholding human rights. Yet, occasionally, the UN strikes the right chord.
Namely, the UN Secretary General has championed the creation of new social contracts for humanity, spanning from local communities to global contexts. Addressing AI, these contracts extend beyond mere technicalities like algorithms or data handling. They represent society’s responses to fundamental challenges, seeking harmony between individual actions and collective responsibilities. The Secretary General weaves AI and digital matters into a broader tapestry encompassing peace, security, human dignity, environmental preservation, and general well-being. Such a comprehensive perspective motivated my suggestion to adopt the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as guardrails for AI development.
Parting thoughts: Deep in reflection and fast in action
As we stand on the cusp of a new era, we should embrace historical thinking not as a source of ready-made solutions but as a source of inspiration. It can help us craft social contracts aligning with technological progress while honouring our humanity.
Yet, as we ponder the philosophical underpinnings of the AI epoch, the clock ticks, AI doesn’t wait—it’s already sculpting our world.
At the same time, as we dive deep into the philosophical roots of the AI era, we should act fast, as AI is already shaping our lives and society. In search of solutions, we should leverage existing initiatives and platforms, such as the work of the UN Secretary-General on AI and digital governance.
This conversation should not be left to experts or diplomats alone. Each of us has a stake and a role in shaping our AI future. The decisions we make now, at the dawn of this AI-driven era, will define our future.
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