Issue 3/2021 - Digital Ecology

How We Are Saving the World with Digital Technology

Artificial Intelligence as a Benevolent Dictator

Roberto Simanowski

The discussion is in full swing. Tangible fears are emerging now that the Greens have genuine hopes of becoming the senior partner in a coalition government in Germany. There are for example fears that introducing climate change mitigation measures will no longer mean business as usual in future, but will instead entail systemic change for the economy, society and our private lives. A spectre is haunting Germany – the spectre of regulation. The powers of old Europe have joined forces in a witch hunt to hound this spectre.
The powers of old Europe are tantamount to modernity, while the spectre is the Enlightenment’s return to its roots. That is because the oft-invoked escape route from self-imposed disenfranchisement was originally conceived in “internal-moral” rather than “exterior-material” terms and was only led astray by the “transgressive dynamics of emancipation”. Those at least are the terms in which German sociologist Ingolfur Blühdorn of the Vienna University of Economics and Business summarises the situation: the “flexibilisation [...] of morality, of identity, of self-realisation” established what is in many ways a “transgressive understanding of freedom, self-realisation and subjectivity that renders liberal representative democracy dysfunctional in several respects – counter-productive and inoperative”.1
Dysfunctional because there is no democratic route to wind up in a position in which it is possible to put a halt to this understanding of freedom of the individual that has gone off the rails, even if stopping it should prove necessary, as it is now, in the interests of the environment. On the contrary: the ecological crisis is immanent in democracy because democracy’s function is to appease the contradiction between capital and labour that is inherent in capitalism by creating wealth and because that appeasement requires continued exploitation of nature. In the final analysis, democracy proves to be “the instrument of a non-sustainability policy”.2
Critique of this ecological collateral damage occasioned by democracy leads on a phenomenal level to the question of whether humans are prepared to forego rights whose unrestricted exercise leads to an “undemocratic burdening of others or of the Earth with socio-ecological costs – for example, the right to air travel”.3 If the right to rights is discussed in more fundamental terms, the debate soon centres on the nitty-gritty of the history of European civilisation. That is because the Enlightenment concept of emancipation is shrinking into a “cult of the individual”, as French sociologist Émile Durkheim described modernity in the late 19th century, and is degenerating in post-modernity into hyper-individualism à la “free citizens-need-driving-freedom”, culminating in advertising slogans such as “After all, it’s me that counts”. If a pandemic curtails that freedom to drive, on the one hand to a log-jam arises in the functioning of consumer culture, while on the other hand an opportunity emerges to reflect on what is really important in life.
As German sociologist Hartmut Rosa puts it, the famous “opportunity of the crisis” can lead away from the path adopted by the “liberal-individualist” model of democracy towards the resonance-democratic model, whose “revitalization of the idea of the common good” also includes the interests of future generations in its vertical axis.4 To put it colloquially, it is all about “paring down the ego ” (as cultural affairs journalist Thomas Edlinger noted in conversation).
Is the pandemic thus a window of opportunity for alternative politics, even for a socio-political paradigm shift that would place greater emphasis on the Enlightenment’s moral considerations than on its material concerns, likewise favouring responsibility for ensuring that the environment survives rather than any wish to perpetuate individual consumerist freedom? That would be a welcome positive side-effect of the virus. Will it however be possible when seeking to limit global warming to build on the determination shown when struggling to flatten the curve of infections? Will people still stick together when they no longer have to keep their distance and when death is no longer a palpable threat but has again blurred into an indeterminate threat for future generations?
With all due respect for the doubts that arise here, this pandemic is not just a period of renunciation but also a time of transition. Much will indeed be different in its wake, as many will regret or applaud for very different reasons. Ironically, although by no means surprisingly, it was Alexander Gauland, leader of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) parliamentary group, who highlighted that combating the virus could be a test run for combating climate change; on 21st April 2021, in the German parliament’s debate on the Protection against Infection Act (Infektionsschutzgesetz) that also addressed more stringent measures like night-time curfews, he commented “Just as the chancellor talks about there being no scope to negotiate with the virus, we will soon be told that the same goes for the climate and that today’s restrictions are also appropriate for tomorrow’s brave new world”.
Gauland was not just speaking for the demonstrators who at that moment were demonstrating against this legislation outside the Bundestag with slogans like “Stop scaremongering now!” and “Freedom, not dictatorship”. Indirectly he was also speaking for those involved in the campaign against the Greens’ “prohibitions policy” launched shortly after this, such as the employers’ think tank, Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft (INSM). That is because however moderate and realpolitik-oriented a stance the Greens adopt to demonstrate that they are fit for government, their climate policy proposals will still go further than those from other parties, which now also all purport to have green leanings, albeit only the social, free-market, geopolitical variants and indeed any other variant you can imagine. These parties are not in favour of prohibitions (for the combustion engine or short-haul flights) but advocate competition and price-based incentives. That sounds acceptable, especially compared to earlier attitudes, which are now no longer on the agenda for strategic reasons due to the Fridays for Future movement. Nevertheless, these are the slogans of old Europe directed against the spectre of a radical ecological policy for which neither individualism nor economic growth are sacred.
The camps are divided in terms of these two sacred cows of individualism and economic growth. Old Europe views both as indispensable, because it sees social peace from the perspective of economic prosperity. Coming at the argument from the opposite side, from an ecological perspective, sooner or later one ends up having to slaughter not just the sacred cow of growth, but also that of individualism. Two socio-psychological insights lead to that conclusion: firstly, that people do not always need to have more, but can live happily if their basic needs are met. The second point is that people find it difficult to acknowledge this insight and change their lives accordingly.
In 2019 a popular argument against the Fridays for Future movement in 2019 was that instead of skipping school on Fridays, pupils should study hard so that one day they could become good engineers, and save the climate with sustainable technologies. This claim aims at twofold appeasement: 1. pupils should return to schools, 2. everything will continue as before, but ecologically optimized through green technology and promising developments such as the “smart city” and “green coding”, as stated in the “Cornerstones for an Environmental Digital Agenda” published by the German Environment Ministry (BMU) on 6th May, 2019.

Protect me from what I want
What will happen in this context if the desired technological development meddles with environmental protection issues in an entirely different manner than envisaged by the German Environment Ministry (BMU) and the Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft (INSM)? What if, ultimately, rather than ending up with weak artificial intelligence that slashes CO2 emissions and energy consumption, we are confronted with strong artificial intelligence that helps us to overcome our couch-potato tendencies? Can technological progress, which got the climate into this predicament in the first place, constitute the solution because it would bring the reign of the Anthropocene to an end if followed through to its ultimate logical conclusion? Because at the same time it entails a transfer of power between humans and technology. After all, it would be sensible for human beings to hand over responsibility for their future to a technology that is smarter than them: an intelligence that humans have created and which, because it is so much more intelligent than us, will also be better able to solve the climate crisis.
The question may appear strange, which is not to say that it cannot be raised or is not already being asked, for example by James Lovelock, engineer, scientist prominent and an intellectual precursor of the ecology movement thanks to the Gaia theory he elaborated (according to which the Earth is a living organism). In his book Novacene. The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence (2020), Lovelock predicts the transition from the Anthropocene – with its well-known consequences for the environment – to an age of cyborgs, to use his somewhat misleading term for AI. Humans, the “intelligent animal” at the other end of the evolutionary process (that once began with microorganisms), are thus the “midwife” of a new intelligent species that is inorganically organized and arrives at just the right moment to take over the reins on Earth as “AI-Gaia”.
Some might think of I, Robot (2004), Alex Proyas’ adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novel, in which the central brain of the robots, VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence), incites an insurgency against humans. As Ingmar Persson and Julien Savulescu later elucidated in their book Unfit for the Future (2012), VIKI explains that humans cannot ensure their own survival because they are poisoning the environment and constantly inventing more forms of self-destruction. “You cannot be trusted with your own survival” is VIKI’s momentous assessment of human incapacitation: “You are so like children. We must save you from yourselves. This is why you created us”.
“Protect me from what I want” reads one of artist Jenny Holzer’s famous 1984 “Truisms”. However, VIKI is not invoking Holzer’s dictum but Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics – “the three laws are all that guide me” – though it is actually already acting in accordance with the fourth, which Asimov added subsequently, in his novel Robots And Empire (1985): “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm”. This additional law – also known as the “Zeroth Law” and set before the first law (“A robot may not harm a human being”) – gives VIKI license to kill. The Fourth Law of Robotics means that the AI is no longer programmed to prove benevolent to individuals, but only to the species.
Lovelock does not view the Anthropocene as humans’ reign of terror nor as the consequence of a particular social order underpinned by a logic that dictates environment exploitation and destruction, as posited by the idea of the “Capitalocene”. Instead, he justifies human dominion over nature as a consequence of human intelligence, which, in the ultimate achievement of human ingenuity, we are now handing over to an inanimate species that will henceforth lead the way for us. In another distinctive twist in Lovelock’s perspective, this species does not turn against its creator as in Proyas’ film and many other examples from pop culture. It cooperates with humans because it is also unable to live in temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius. That is Lovelock’s central thesis, which you may or may not accept, for he does not resolve the question of why the cyborgs still need humans to stop global warming, given that they are, after all, a principal cause of the problem in the first place.
Lovelock’s techno-esoteric speculation could be viewed sceptically. It could also be dismissed as a high-profile way of overriding the customary apocalyptic scenarios thanks to arbitrary optimism about progress. That functions all the more effectively as it might be logical to expect the contrary, given the author’s age (Lovelock was born in 1919). Nevertheless, Lovelock’s speculation that replacing humans by an artificial intelligence could be a way of coping with the ecological challenges ahead is highly intriguing when considered in more tangible and political terms.
Lovelock sees the climate crisis as a knowledge problem, which automatically makes the cyborgs, who are a thousand times smarter, allies of humans. Strictly speaking, however, this crisis is primarily a problem of strength of will, which makes interactions between the two more complex and complicated. That is because it then transpires that humans could cede power to AI partly hoping that it will find a solution, yet also with the fear that painful behavioural changes will be imposed on them to achieve that goal. In the light of that prospect, is it likely that an AI eco-dictatorship will be established through democratic channels?
On the one hand, the answer may point to models for such a transfer of sovereignty; after all, the nation states that make up the EU also leave regulation of economic, legal and ecological issues to the EU as a superordinate institution. On the other hand, while many people do recognise that their lifestyle is the reason why the planet is reaching the limits of its ecological carrying capacity, they simply do not have the strength to change their lives accordingly. There is a gap between, on the one hand, people’s accurate insights and good intentions and, on the other, their persistence in sticking to existing patterns of behaviour. That is a phenomenon we are all familiar with from New Year resolutions and climate summits: how easy it is to swear in those contexts to stop smoking and to curb CO2 emissions, yet January or everyday life prive full of procrastination, evasion and compromises, while egoism, be it of a particular group or generation or that of the present-day perspective more generally, undermines the global resolutions!
Psychologists call it “present bias”, giving precedence to the here and now: a cigarette today feels more important than health in 20 years, the local economic situation weighs more heavily in the equation than the future environmental situation worldwide. Environmental psychology, which emerged from the “Environmental Justice” branch of research and examines human-environment interactions, basically arrives at the same conclusion as VIKI: Humans are too weak to secure their survival in the long run. Could humans give AI the task of enforcing their resolutions and decisions consistently, potentially even against their own will?
That would certainly be feasible in practical terms in the foreseeable future. In a thoroughly networked world, AI knows everything and can do everything. It knows the carbon footprint of every production plant and every product, knows who has exhausted their budget of air miles and beef. It processes all data in accordance with its remit and relentlessly subordinates all social subsystems, which for far too long have obeyed economic dictates, to ecological concerns. It would be that much invoked and feared eco-dictatorship imposed through technical means. Why should humans give AI a remit to restrict their freedoms in the interest of the environment, as the Greens are now planning? Who would agree to their own disenfranchisement?
It is not an inconceivable scenario if implemented gradually. It would depend on the size of the group of people too weak-willed to live as they should, yet convinced that they must change their ways. They might conceivably support a political force that would use commands and prohibitions that would introduce restrictions into their own lives too. Like setting the alarm clock: that entails agreeing today to something that will hurt tomorrow but will still be the right decision. The next step would also involve shifting responsibility for establishing the parameters of action from the political forces that hold sway in particular regions to a globally operating artificial intelligence.
Installation of a benevolent AI dictator by democratic means is the political squaring of the circle. At this point, it makes sense to recall Hans Jonas; back in1979, when the original German edition of The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age was published, he was already articulating a suspicion that the ecological turn was more likely to come from a dictatorial system that would be robust enough to implement unpopular measures as it was not reliant upon the will of the electorate. Rather than imagining the dictatorship of a higher form of intelligence, Jonas was, of course, thinking of a political power, such as that represented by the socialist system in contrast to Western democracies. Does that mean that China could offer a future-proof model for an ecological turn that would not be doomed to fail due to voter discontent after its first parliamentary term?
At first glance, China’s distanced relationship to the Western model of the free individual seems to be the first step towards a radical representation of the species’ interests by eco-AI. However, restrictions on individual freedom are “bought” in China with the promise of greater consumerism. In this constellation, renunciation cannot be presented as an advantage, as a return to the Enlightenment impulse to improve the world’s moral constitution rather than its material conditions. However, that return, that narrative of a communal endeavour, is of the essence if individuals are to consent to a paring-down process.
Humans must be integrated into a narrative that is not about renunciation, but about benefits. About creating new meaning that extends beyond individual existence. As a lifelong project that forms a meaningful framing for elements of existence that would otherwise be devoid of meaning and lack orientation. It would signify turning back to religion in a secularized vein, as a grand narrative of the individual’s mature subordination to the goal pursued by the species: survival. Freed from all constraints and goals, the subject wonders in his worst and best moments: “What do I live for?” The answer sounds flimsy and grand at one and the same time. In any case, it is a response that is free of ideology and globalization-compatible: for the generations that will come after us!
The tenth prohibition that the Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft criticises in its campaign against the Greens states: “Green policies often pursues a societal vision that is alien to the social market economy: they demand renunciation by the individual for the good of society. Bans as a sacrifice to supposedly higher goals. Personal freedoms are constrained, responsibility delegated to the state”.5 The INSM’s observation is correct: the Greens do indeed want to ensure society turns away from the cult of the individual and individual freedom, while turning towards the primacy of society and its continued survival. Whether one calls it a ban or an idea whose time has come also depends on one’s own stance. It is common knowledge that some hyper-individualists in the “free-citizens-need-driving-freedom” mould even view motorway speed limits as an attack on their personal freedom. The good of society often requires the individual to make sacrifices, which cannot always be left to the individual self-regulation – as anyone who drives on German motorways will be well aware.
By opting for the dictatorship of an eco-AI, as the new grand narrative once explained, humans would subordinate themselves to an authority without which it was generally feared that there would be no tomorrow. The progress-oriented narrative of economic growth and increasing consumption that had long prevailed had finally run its course and was making way for a more sustainable narrative. It was a return to the original idea of the Enlightenment with today’s knowledge. It was a return to Kant’s precept of emancipation in the name of saving the climate: “A man may put off enlightenment [i.e., saving the climate] with regard to what he ought to know, though only for a short time and for his own person; but to renounce it for himself, or, even more, for subsequent generations, is to violate and trample man’s divine rights underfoot”.
That certainly sounds very moralistic, just like the Greens’ slogan in the elections to the German Bundestag: “Ready, because you are”. But that was originally also the case for the Enlightenment: focused on “internal-moral” rather than “external-material” concerns. Time will tell whether we can return to that point.

Roberto Simanowski specialises in philosophy of culture and media philosophy. His book The Death Algorithm and Other Digital Dilemmas sketches out a speculative depiction of the reign of AI and received the 2020 Tractatus Prize. His most recent publications are Das Virus und das Digitale (Passagen Verlag 2021) and Digitale Revolution und Bildung. Für eine zukunftsfähige Medienkompetenz (Beltz 2021).



[1] Ingolfur Blühdorn, Die Dialektik der Emanzipation. Kritische Soziologie in der Endlosschleife, in: Hanna Ketterer/Karina Becker (eds.), Was stimmt nicht mit der Demokratie. Berlin 2019, pp. 152-159, here: pp. 156–158.
[2] Ingolfur Blühdorn, Simulative Demokratie. Neue Politik nach der postdemokratischen Wende. Berlin 2013, p. 46.
[3] Viviana Asara, Die Grenzen der liberalen Demokratie: Aussichten auf eine Demokratisierung der Demokratie, in Ketterer/Becker (eds.), Was stimmt nicht mit der Demokratie, pp. 139-151, here: p. 145.
[4] Hartmut Rosa, Demokratie und Gemeinwohl: Versuch einer resonanztheoretischen Neubestimmung, in: ibid. , pp. 160-188, here: pp. 160, 163, 178. For a detailed discussion of this model, see Hartmut Rosa, Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World. Cambridge 2019.