Lessons from Luciano Floridi, the Google philosopher

How much do we really understand the ongoing shift to a digital world? Nowhere near enough, according to ‘Google philosopher’ Luciano Floridi. This leading data theorist warns that we need to better understand what he calls the ‘Fourth Revolution’, writes Diane Dean.

Luciano Floridi, professor of philosophy and ethics of information at Oxford, is considered one of the world’s leading experts on the great digital disruption. He’s currently serving as the only ethicist on Google’s advisory panel on the right to be forgotten.

Floridi’s first book—Scepticism and the Foundation of Epistemology—looked at the concept of subject-independent knowledge: the kind of information which might be called ‘semantic’. He subsequently began working exclusively on what is now known as the philosophy of information during his years as research fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford.

Information has been the hardworking invisible helper of most philosophical disciplines.

PROFESSOR LUCIANO FLORIDI, OXFORD UNIVERSITY

In his latest book, The Fourth Revolution, Floridi discusses how our world is being integrated into a global ‘infosphere’ where what we do online and off merge into an ‘onlife’. As we gradually become surrounded by and coupled to smart gadgets which manipulate the information we promote about ourselves, we acquire an onlife personality—one different from our real world ‘embodied’ personality.

‘In a way, information has been the hardworking invisible helper of most philosophical disciplines,’ he says. ‘Without information such branches as ethics and epistemology might disappear. Yet this fundamental concept of how information comes into being and how it goes to work has not really been fully investigated.’

According to Floridi, there have been three main ‘de-centering’ shifts in our world view: Copernicus’ model of the earth orbiting the sun, Darwin’s Origin of Species and Freud’s assertion that the unconscious mind underlies all our actions.

Although information might have been in the background all along, it became more visible when what we know as the ‘digital revolution’ elevated the importance of qualitative analysis of information—Floridi’s ‘Fourth Revolution’.

Yet into this list of revolutions we might also insert Revolution 3.5: the Industrial Revolution—essentially a major change to manufacturing processes, which impacted the daily lives of most people. The dominant industry then was textiles: mechanisation was adopted and large amounts of capital were invested.

Some economists argue that the payoff was an improved standard of living for the general population, although that’s not always agreed upon. Nevertheless, the workforce became both separated from and bound to these new methods. The revolution continued with the increasing adoption of steam transport and the large-scale manufacture of machine tools.

What flow-on effects has the Industrial Revolution had on our digital life? In having become mechanised beings, we are now even more tightly bound to our information mechanisms: we wear them, learn with them, buy things with them, and sometimes even generate income with them. We’re not just cogs operating the machine, we are now also its product and its messenger.

Floridi thinks that this plethora of free information is likely to impact on our sense of our self and our environment. He says we must change our approach to ethical conduct and decision making to deal with the challenges posed by our digital lives.

There’s also the scary realisation that humans are not the only beings who might be capable of expanding that approach or making those decisions. Some modern machines are not only able to regulate their own operations, they can do things we never before thought they’d be capable of, such as playing the piano, learning a card game or beating us at chess.

Consequently, we’ve begun to realise that humans might not be the best at thinking. If machines can outsmart us at some thought processes, is there an ‘existential risk’ that machines will take over completely? Could we lose our sense of who we are on a personal level? If we’re not at the apex of a thinking society, then what or who is, and how might we rate?

Happily, at the moment we still live in a world of context-relative information, where the meaning of something does not exist independently of a viewpoint, and information does not exist adrift from a conscious mind. The way we utilise information has moved beyond simple dichotomies such as the subjective/objective views, and into a ‘relationalist’ framework, however. Although not every piece of information necessarily means something, the modern thinker has a relational view because pure data is of itself equivocal.

‘It’s perfectly fine to say that there is no semantic information in, say, a text, without someone reading and understanding it, but it would be silly to say that anything counts as a text,’ says Floridi. ‘Even with old texts which we didn’t understand, we knew there was still information contained there.

‘To give an ordinary example, if we were to try to define food—on the one hand you have stuff, and on the other hand you have something that eats that stuff—and tigers don’t eat grass. Information is relational like that.’

The first person to realise that information could be computed was Alan Turing—Floridi’s intellectual hero. One of his most important discoveries was ‘the level of abstraction’. On a philosophical level, this means that questions asked irrespective of a frame of reference are meaningless. In linking thinking with machines, Turing had the ‘amazing intuition’ that we do not have an objective understanding of machines, nor of thinking. Floridi says that Turing didn’t care whether the machine was intelligent, just that it could be just as good as anything that you might choose as a frame of reference—like a human being.

‘If you accept the frame of reference, then you know whether something has or has not passed it,’ he says. ‘So it’s a procedural way, rather than being about necessary and sufficient conditions. Similarly, philosophical questions should have a frame of reference, and a reason for choosing it.’

Partly because of this, artificial intelligence isn’t going to happen overnight, if at all—a machine with interpretive flexibility is a long, long way away. At the moment, the idea of AI is a distraction. We do have lots of data, though, so what can it tell us? Well, that depends on your questions. If anything, big data is generating a need for more well thought out questions.

That’s part of Floridi’s role at Google—looking at who’s in control of what data and what they intend to do with it, especially personal data. What kind of society can we build with all this accumulated information? There are serious issues to be confronted, especially when large corporations control the data’s collection, interpretation and dissemination.

Which way will it go, who will decide? What kind of societal fabric do we wish to weave? For Floridi, these are all questions that need to be answered very soon.

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