Niarchos Nostros Conference: Artificial Intelligence Here to Stay

September 2, 2021

ATHENS – Resistance is futile to technological advances in a world that has gone from abacus to analog to digital, and the kingpin of them – Artificial Intelligence – is an idea as old as Ancient Greece, and explored by a range of thinkers at the 2021 Stavros Niarchos Foundation Conference on Humanity and AI.

“The first narrative for an intelligent machine was in the Iliad….People have been thinking of creating objects that are as intelligent and can interact with humans for millennia,” said Kanta Dihal, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence.

How to safely harness AI for the kind of humankind has been a tricky part, especially for ethicists, as scientists and others explore its use and boundaries and how it can be used in a world where algorithms follow us on computers and cell phones.

Opening the conference, SNF Co-President Andreas Dracopoulos said that, “We humans  are partly responsible for having compromised/commoditized our own humanity in so many ways.

“Our humanity has been weakened and has become vulnerable. We have all seen this in a clear way during the ongoing COVID pandemic. We have been exposed, but maybe at the same time we have been given another chance to collectively regroup,” he said.

The questions are profound and will affect humanity through the 21st Century as more advances are made geometrically, accelerating the speed at which they happen because of devices that can calculate, but AI wants to attach a thinking.

As AI has the potential to fundamentally reshape our institutions, our social structures, and our ways of living, conference participants probed how those same structures, habits, and unquestioned assumptions have helped shape the form that AI has taken, it was noted.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, President and CEO of the International Peace Institute, discussed how AI should be deployed during a panel on Discourse and Democracy.

“We are now reaching some sort of existential moment and we need to change the competitive instinct, the commercial desire for profit into something that will allow our species to continue and not to destroy itself,” he said.

Thinkers and practitioners from tech sector, to medicine, to politics, to the arts came together for the two-day event that went to the heart of AI's central questions: What sort of world do we want to live in? And how do we get there?

“AI is not one thing, it is multiple technologies through a system of power. The question is how we can design a system were power is shared,” said Anasuya Sengupta, Founder & Co-Director of Whose Knowledge, in a panel focused on envisioning AI Futures Worth Wanting.


Power dynamics – how they influence the creation of AI technologies and how AI technologies help shift or reinforce them- were a consistent undercurrent across a number of different discussions.

Google AI Software Engineer, Software Architect, and Designer Blaise Aguera Y Arcas said that, “We can’t ask ‘Is it good?’ We have to ask ‘Good for whom?’…. We are making tradeoffs all the time,” in the field.

Nicolas Economou, Chair of the Science, Law, and Society Initiative at the Future Society and Principal Coordinator of the Athens Roundtable on AI and the Rule of Law in a panel on Connection, Competition and Cooperation noted challenges.

“AI is trained by data. Data carries values. Values carry judgements. And therefore it embodies certain ethical perspectives on what is right, what is fair, and it embodies certain biases, conscious or unconscious, of a society,” he said

The concept cuts across categories from medicine to science, arts, technology, robotics, computers, cell phones, social media and can be used for good or gain in a world where hackers proliferate.

Even when AI is being used to deliver more widely shared benefits rather than harnessed for the benefit of a few, the outcomes may not be equal or fair., the discussion included.

In the medical field, Dr. Barry Coller, Vice President for Medical Affairs at The Rockefeller University, commented in a panel on Meta-Patterns, “We have to deal with the fact that something may be fantastic for general decision-making but can be a catastrophe for the individual.”

In arts, William Kentridge observed that algorithms are very good at optimizing, but that the “less good idea” is often what produces the best result and the panel was interspersed with short performances related to AI by artists, including him.

In closing, Dracopoulos said advancing AI offers us an opportunity also also reaffirm what makes us human. Picking up on the optimism expressed in the panel featuring young people, he said that he was confident in the next generation and that technology will, improve human lives.

“We must be vigilant about making sure we hear from voices that have so far been marginalized in decision-making. Civic discourse and civic engagement, as well as modern “agora” spaces, will only grow in importance. And we need to find a way to make sure that our data is used in a way that centers our humanity,” he said

After all, he added: “AI is here to stay.”


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