The Ambassadors Reimagined: How Holbein’s painting can inspire global AI negotiations?
Updated on 02 November 2023
In an era where technology rapidly evolves, and artificial intelligence (AI) stands at the forefront of the next seismic shift, the Renaissance masterpiece, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, offers an inspiring guide for today’s AI diplomats.1The painting is displayed in the National Gallery in London. The painting, created in 1533 during a period of profound political and scientific changes, encapsulates the spirit of its time and provides an alternative perspective for understanding the current AI era.
Holbein witnessed historical moments at Tudor’s court when King Henry VIII broke away from Rome and created the Church of England. Two ambassadors from Holbein’s painting aimed to overcome the conflict between Henry VIII and the Catholic world. They failed in their diplomatic mission, but the painting’s message remains relevant to our time.
About the painting’s historical context
The Ambassadors reflect the spirit of the time. The Renaissance was in full swing in science and art: Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in 1503, Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation by posting ‘95 theses’, and Magellan sailed to new continents in 1519.
It was a time of major political conflicts triggered by a religious split in Christianity. Two ambassadors from Holbein’s painting are in the middle of that time’s religious and diplomatic upheavals.
On the left, as we look at the painting, stands Jean de Dinteville: a French ambassador to England at the court of King Henry VIII.
On the right is Georges de Selve, a bishop of Lavaur who acted several times as an ambassador for French King Francis I to the Holy Roman Emperor, the Venetian Republic, and the Pope.
In 1533 when the painting was made, King Henry VIII’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was finalised, leading him to marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope’s refusal to sanction the annulment resulted in Henry’s breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church and establishing the Church of England. This move had profound political and religious implications for England and its relationship with Catholic countries in Europe.
In this seismic moment, Jean de Dinteville got diplomatic support from Georges de Selve, who had a broader understanding of the geopolitics of the crisis between England and the Catholic world.
The symbolism and relevance of painting in the AI era
While the painting can be appreciated for its artistic mastery, understanding the political and religious context of the era provides deeper insights into its symbolism and the message Holbein might have intended to convey.
In the following text, we will explore how the deeper symbolism of The Ambassadors transcends time and remains relevant for issues we face in the AI era.
Two shelves: between earthly and heavenly
In the centre of the painting are two shelves filled with objects with strong symbolic meaning.
The lower shelf has earthly symbols, including a globe, a merchant’s calculus book, a lute with a broken string, and a Lutheran hymnal. These items represent earthly interests and the disputes that accompany them.
The upper shelf symbolises a heavenly order, represented by astronomic tools evoking the scientific optimism of the Renaissance era.
The two ambassadors should overcome these earthly conflicts and elevate society to the upper shelf, symbolising a stable heavenly order.
This symbolic meaning of shelves on The Ambassadors corresponds well with the challenges of AI negotiators.
The lower shelf would represent the tangible, known elements of our reality: the technology and machinery of AI, the legal frameworks and policies currently in place, the commercial interests driving the industry, and the societal and ethical implications unfolding around us. Like the broken string on the lute in the painting, these elements can be discordant and cause conflicts that need resolution.
The upper shelf would signify our wishes for a largely unknown AI future:
- the promise of scientific progress and breakthroughs in AI,
- the hope for societal benefits of AI, and
- the desire for harmonious relations between AI and humans
A reminder of human limitations
The skull, a memento mori, or ‘reminder of death’, serves as a warning of the limits of human agency, including blind faith in technology. It encourages us to be humble, deliberate, and mindful of, for example, ethical boundaries as we advance AI. The skull also warns against some AI leaders’ ideas about changing human nature and achieving immortality.
Broad perspective and focus on details
Holbein’s painting is a mastery of grasping overall context while meticulously focusing on details. This type of optics – zooming in and out – will be one of the main challenges for AI negotiators as they deal with the layered complexity of AI developments. They have to resolve ethical and philosophical issues while making detailed and practical guidelines that could help software engineers to develop algorithms and applications.
Holbein’s painting is honest and realistic.2.In preparing to paint astronomic objects at the Ambassadors, Holbein consulted Nicolaus Kratzer, the German-born astronomer at the court of Henry VIII. There is no flattery in his style. He depicts the overall situation and personalities of the two ambassadors as they are. Honest realism is badly needed in the AI era as this technology is perceived almost like ‘magic’ with high extremes of enormous enthusiasm and fear. The Ambassador reminds us to be fully aware of the reality that AI triggers or may trigger in the future. In today’s diplomatic lingo, it could be called ‘evidence-based’ policymaking.
Harmony and balance
The two ambassadors in the painting stand harmoniously yet distinctly, symbolizing a balance of power and collaboration. Finding a harmonious balance between national interests, technological advancement, and ethical considerations in AI diplomacy is vital.
The painting is rich in symbols from various fields – theology, astronomy, music, and more. Similarly, AI discussions should be interdisciplinary, involving experts from various domains to ensure comprehensive governance. AI should not be seen only as a technical or scientific issue.
Representation and responsibility
Just as the ambassadors in the painting bear the weight of representing their ruler. AI ambassadors are responsible for representing humanity’s best interests in the AI realm. Trust in AI can be developed through responsible representation of various perspectives and policies from citizens, communities, and countries worldwide.
Holbein’s painting reminds us that diplomats should not be only representatives of the interests of their principles but also promoters of the global public good. In the painting’s metaphor, as they navigate geopolitical complexities of the ‘lower shelf’, they should always aim at the enlightened vision of the ‘upper shelf’ of developing a prosperous and harmonious global society.
Today, many policy issues, from wars to climate change and AI, need to be elevated to the ‘upper shelf’ of peace and the promotion of the core values of humanity.
Today’s AI diplomats, much like The Ambassadors, are heralds of wider societal interests, weaving through the intricate fabric of technology, ethics, and global politics. Holbein’s dichotomy of worldly chaos and divine order offers a metaphorical guide: To successfully chart the AI terrain, we must elevate our discourse, aspiring to a harmonious coexistence of man and machine.