César Antonio Molina (A Coruña, 1952) likes to say that science emerged from literary fiction. For centuries – he tells El Cultural – he used his linguistic and metaphorical expressions. Literature served as a protective shield against state and religious powers, who never viewed it with much affection. Also for many centuries, through utopias or science fiction stories, literature was ahead advancing what, good or bad, would be achieved with its development. This parallel path lasted until the middle of the 19th century, at which time we can say that science was acquiring its independence and transforming into an almost completely autonomous subject with its own language.
After How beautiful it is to live without culture! the former minister and author of works such as Where eternity grows old and The hunt for intellectuals (all of them in Destino) goes one step further in the analysis of lto digital reality -and the situation in which technologies such as artificial intelligence place us- with What do we do with humans? (Deusto), an illuminating title that addresses a transcendental crossroads in our days: “Why robots, artificial intelligence and algorithms represent a threat to the survival of human beings.”
Ask. Why has a literature writer like you faced this challenge of studying aspects of science and new technologies? What compatibility do you see between both worlds?
Answer. Italo Calvino, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, went so far as to affirm that Galileo Galilei was not only one of the best Italian writers, but also universal, since he passed off reality as fiction. Francis Bacon, in The new Atlantis, He wrote one of the great utopian novels-stories. He told the supposed story of Besalém, the Island State doomed to failure because good intentions are not enough. Descartes, also a good writer, was one of the precursors of modern scientific jargon. I say jargon without bad intentions. And the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico always defended the compatibility between the sciences and the humanities.
And already, contemporary poets and narrators like our Galdós or Pío Baroja and foreigners like Eliot, Yeats, Orwell and a long etcetera, dedicated many pages of their works to reflecting on the compatibility of both subjects. The same thing happens to me, saving the distance, and that is why I have written this book, which, fundamentally, deals with existential risk in which we are living. Some researchers even speak of ‘existential genocide’. Because as Adorno already wrote, the idea of progress cannot exist without that of humanity (in Dialectic of Enlightenment). And Einstein warned us by pointing out that the perversion of science is a sin against the spirit.
“We are watched everywhere and in everything. Zuckerberg was defending a new totalitarianism, in this case technological one”
Q. Do you think that human beings are in danger seeing the prominence that artificial intelligence is acquiring?
R. Completely. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, made a terrible statement in 2010. Privacy, for him, had ceased to be a social norm, a right. Privacy has always equaled freedom. Therefore he was questioning this inalienable right of the individual. And that’s how it is. We are watched everywhere. Zuckerberg, like the fascists, Nazis, Maoists and Soviets, was defending a new totalitarianism, in this case technological one. He was showing a kind of property right over each individual.
Elon Musk has always referred to that human capitalism has died and we are already in technological capitalism. Even important scholars like Kaczynski have come to call for a renunciation of technology, stopping progress to analyze the future and, now, giving up certain types of research that are leading us down the wrong path. In 1971, long ago, the US Congress created a National Commission for the Protection of Human Beings. And today, universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley or Boston have study centers dedicated to the future of humanity or existential risk. We are already aware that the danger exists and is real.
Q. Do you consider, as some voices warn, that the more technology there is, the more we will depend on it and the more ignorance we will have about ourselves?
R. That’s how it is. We already practically depend on it. But technology is not something abstract, it has its owners, its owners, its companies, its power, and in this network the human being is already captured. It’s going to be very difficult to go back to gain freedom. We are immersed in several revolutions at the same time: genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. Soon we will get to ask ourselves the following questions. Are robots a race of improved humans? Are humans a race of inhumans? Yuval Harari author of Homo Deus, says that we are already at the beginning of the union of Homo Sapiens with artificial intelligence, which will produce superintelligent, strong and immortal offspring. Terminates the Homo Sapiens and talks about Homo Deus. And it also reminds us that the Homo Erectuyes, the Homo Habilis and many others. That we are moving away from the knowledge of ourselves due to this unconditional surrender to the machines. Obviously, they will end up controlling us due to our own shortcomings and needs.
Q. Do you see an imminent danger in our way of living together?
R. There’s a digital brutalization that not only erodes the individual but also society and our democracies. Our feelings, affections, desires, love, happiness, death, destiny, free will and other existential bases until now, why will they be replaced? What other reasons will be invented to give meaning to life? Will they be extirpated and will no longer be necessary to us? Will there no longer be individuals but only a mass that will once again be “manipulated”, “oriented” and “directed”? Human beings are increasingly surrounded by objects that govern them. He already has to share the world with beings that are not irrational (animals) but are increasingly similar to ourselves. Yes, supposedly, God created us in his image and likeness, we want to do the same with robots. And then what generic and legal category will they have (or will we have)?
Q. What can society do in the midst of this revolution?
R. You must be very present in all these processes and establish the need or not for each of them. And, above all things, protect the individual. A code of ethics must cover all people involved in this artificial intelligence work. There are several important questions to answer here: Does a human modified by technology stop being human? Where should the dividing line be drawn? Are we creating new species? There are many other issues that must also be studied legally.
Q. Are human beings on their way to obsolescence?
R. Yes. Novotny, professor emerita at Columbia University and author of a very interesting book titled Faith in artificial intelligence talk about ‘coevolution’. We already have to learn to coexist in our daily lives with, for example, robots. Or live several lives at once through the metaverse or avatars. All of this will be beyond our tangible, physical and known borders. Yes, first there was Darwinian evolution and now we are in human-machine co-evolution.
Q. Are tech tycoons a danger to democracies?
R. Yes, they are a very serious threat. Their companies are as powerful or more powerful than many States. They don’t pay taxes, they threaten, they can stop life and work whenever they want. In the US, before the events of the Twin Towers, there were a big legal conflict between the North American state and these companies. When such terrible events occurred, the CIA had to turn to them because they were the ones who had the best information. Thus ended the legal struggle. Technology companies went from criminals to heroes overnight because they were helping to save humanity. They were born with that intention, but the fact is that all their owners are today the owners of the largest world fortunes. Today the danger is not in ignorance, which is still great, but in uncontrolled knowledge.
Q. Do you see the Internet as a territory without control?
R. In some ways yes. A difficult territory to specify mentally. Here are two great and unique alternatives. Either it is absolutely free and outside of all legal jurisdiction or it is legalized and normalized according to the rest of society. I prefer that pirates be prosecuted, as well as those who disclose personal or public papers without consent. For me, order and not anarchy should govern on the Internet as well.
Q. Has the appreciation of science in our country changed?
R. Yes, today it has a lot of prestige and great researchers. But it still lacks the necessary financial support from the State and even private foundations. There are no longer anti-scientists like Unamuno or pro-scientists like Galdós and Pío Baroja. Everyone is aware of the importance of science. Science in Spain was highly persecuted by the political and religious powers, although there were disciplines such as mathematics, geography, botany or medicine that had a less tortuous path. But there were no scientists like Galileo, Descartes, Newton or Bacon.
R. Very vivid. Although today I believe that the most disturbing literary presence for me continues to be the work of B. F-Skinner, Walden Two. A novel in which freedom and the individual are sacrificed on the altar of science. Those who enter that Paradise gain everything, except free will. It is known that Microsoft has been monitoring user behavior for years for its own purposes. Skinner, an American professor of psychology, was one of the promoters of Behaviorism: the individual had to have his brain “removed” to save him from evil, from pain, from all desires and emotions, and create tame happiness. Our society has been on the path to this for several decades. Walden Two (1948) was published a year before Orwell’s 1984. Skniner is also the author of an essay titled Beyond freedom and dignity (1971). In this book everything he fictionalized in his novel is justified. He believed in everything he wrote. Had he been born before totalitarianism, he would have been a good precedent.
Q. He ends his book by paying tribute to silence…
R. Yes, because in the face of everything described and meditated on in four hundred pages, I only had to remain silent for a while. At its core, it is a tribute to Tanizaki, Handke, Wenders and Ozu. I think in Finland there is a proverb that states that silence is equivalent to a solid gold ingot, while speaking is silver of not very good quality…