Dialogue between Max Tegmark and Tino Sehgal
50 Minds for the Next 50. Imagining Heritage in the Digital Dimension Session
Cosmologist, physicist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Artists renowned for his performance pieces that challenge excessive material productions in the art world and beyond.
Vision for the Next 50
In the Next 50… The impacts of technologies on the environment, society and economy are considered more seriously so as to serve heritage in the digital dimension.
In the Next 50… The potential of technologies for self-expression and heritage protection is accompanied by critical thinking, responsibility and inclusiveness.
The dialogue between Max Tegmark and Tino Sehgal centred around the dangers and opportunities of technological development for heritage. The two thinkers agreed that we must take into account the impacts of technology on the environment, inequalities and unemployment when imagining the next 50 years of heritage. Tegmark warned that we should be mindful of technological developments, especially artificial intelligence, to create and celebrate values of heritage in the digital dimension. Sehgal believes that heritage can be transmitted like philosophical ideas, making people interested in heritage and influencing the younger generation.
This is a fun format to talk to each other. I'm here as a specialist for digital, or rather, I’m a specialist for the embodied, the non-digital. Max, I feel like you have an interesting range, from cosmology, physics to machine learning, with me being the non-digital specialist, and you, being a cosmologist and physicist. I listened to your Ted Talk, which I found fascinating for different reasons, and what you call AGI, artificial general intelligence. As I understand it, machine intelligence supersedes human intelligence. As someone who's dealing with cosmology, but also machine intelligence, how do you factor in the concept of the soul? I'm curious to hear how you conceive it because it seems to me something that is very difficult for machines to attain: intelligence, yes, but what about a soul?
I think you're asking some really interesting questions.
There are many questions we can ask about machines that we don't know the answer to, such as ‘are machines actually conscious?’ If a self-driving car drives down the street, does it experience colours, sounds or emotions, or does the car even feel anything? Do machines have souls or do humans for that matter have souls? People can argue about that too. Regardless of the answers to these hard questions, whether the machines are conscious or not, or have souls or not, what we can say with great confidence is that they have greater impact on the world and give more power to those who own and control them. In terms of UNESCO’s challenge of preserving heritage, the overarching impact of ever more advanced artificial intelligence, which is the focus of my research at MIT, will be an ever stronger concentration of power on the planet, where fewer people will have more power over more people, unless we somehow manage to radically transform our society.
I'm very interested in what the ultimate heritage will be. You could imagine, on the one hand, that if there's benevolence behind all of this, and it’s guided by human values, then it could perhaps help life flourish for billions of years on Earth and far beyond that, out in the cosmos. That could be our heritage, that we spawn life in our cosmos. But, on the other hand, it could very easily lead instead to a 1984 situation with some sort of horrendous dystopian scenario. It could also, frankly, lead to all life becoming extinct within the next decades because, as Lord Acton famously said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I agree with a lot of things in your general approach. I think that we can start with the deepest things. Starting with the soul, I guess, is the deepest level, or the origin of the universe or something similar.
If we look at your explanatory chart on artificial general intelligence, you made this diagram with mountains, the beach, the sea and the ocean, so the tide of artificial intelligence rises. Let’s say you put art, which is my specialization, at the highest point on the mountain, as a specialist of art, I find it very difficult to imagine that AGI could reach such a point. That has something to do with the fact that maybe at a certain point, let's say empathy or vibrational connection are part of intelligence.
Maybe I'm not up to date on the research about consciousness, but I find your warning about artificial intelligence extremely important for many different reasons. I do wonder if it's really possible for a machine to make an artwork, which is relevant to the history of art. That’s a very difficult thing in my opinion. We haven't had art history for a long time. If you look at how many artists are really remembered from a century ago, such as here at UNESCO, it's a handful. Of course many are remembered in a book or something, but to make a contribution that remains over time seems more like the exception. I have realized that machines could be so conscious that they could produce such an [artistic] contribution.
I think it's pretty clear that machines probably don't need to be conscious to create things we find interesting. What you're looking at here [image of an astronaut on a horse in the galaxy] was recently created by AI. It can be debated as to whether it's artistic or not, whether it's beautiful or not, but the AI was asked to make a picture of an astronaut riding a horse in space. This is not copied from anywhere else. The AI created this figure from scratch and you can see that some thought went into it because the AI put the astronaut on the horse, put it on a space background. If the same system was asked to make an armchair and the shape of an avocado, I think it would be kind of creative.
Yes but art is something else than that.
Yes, of course! I'm not claiming that this is great art, I'm just saying that we have to be very humble before assuming that there are things that AI will not be able to do anytime soon. Most of the predictions made 10 years ago have already been proven wrong. The more interesting question is: What do we want our future to be like? Do we want to continue racing ahead where people are spending more money trying to replace as many human jobs as possible with machines, with seemingly no goal in mind other than making a profit from it? Or should we aspire to something more noble?
I wanted to ask you because I love the work you've done and your approach to creating ephemeral art installations. I'm very interested in what we can do to make sure that humanity’s heritage itself doesn't become ephemeral. So that human’s brief time on stage doesn't become like one of your art installations. After 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, we start creating art, then we build this technology, and in a blink of cosmic history, we're all gone because we did something thoughtless.
I think that my works are very similar to Plato in that ideas were the most robust things. This idea that things are very robust is a nineteenth century idea. As long as people are interested in my work, its effect, then things remain true. If I influence younger practitioners, that's also a way of remaining, and if the human race becomes extinct at some point, there could be different reasons for that.
Probably artificial intelligence, I think that may be the reason.
Or other reasons. But I believe our souls are here to learn, as it wasn't in pain we came, we learned something, we went into other dimensions, which you know about more than me. The reason I ask you about the soul or empathy is, let's say my contribution can be – to put it in provocative terms – a masculine excitement about technology in our societies in general. If we look at our cultures and our era, which started largely In Europe, we are culpable. But a lot of people want to participate in this technological age. We're fascinated with what we can do, but does technology really help in making for a good life? It helps for practical things in making life somewhat easier, but it hasn't diminished work hours.
This is a longer conversation that we should have, the question of machines taking away unemployment, which is basically economic science. We’ve been dealing with that problem for many decades and we've more or less managed to handle it.
I just wonder how much excitement, promise and hope do we put into technology in general. At the end of the day, this is the starting point of my work. Artists have always worked with techniques and technologies, be it painting in a cave, a video art piece, or an internet data piece. I always say, ‘I'm ambitious as an artist. I want to work with the most complex technology on this planet’. In my opinion, that's still human. So I make works that make human beings act in a gallery or re-enact my algorithms, and I feel that the responses were quite strong. In the end, when somebody tells you a very personal story about their life inside a gallery, there's a vibrational connection which is more complex than watching a screen. That's my personal take.
I think you're raising some very good points. I love the humility that you exude when you say that many people just take for granted that more technology is always better. I think this has become a major disease in our Western society, where we take as a fundamental axiom that more technology is always better.
That’s an axiom of modernity.
Exactly. Even if it negatively impacts our climate and creates massive inequalities, nuclear war or whatever. If we go back and look at art and literature, we are reminded that technology is not morally good, nor evil for that matter, it's a tool. It’s our human responsibility to think about how we are going to use it, if it’s for the good or bad.
That's also a big debate. It is a basic thing of German philosophy of the twentieth century that technology is a thought-science, it is not a tool. The book, The Question of Technology literally has that sentence. So that's a tradition I'm closer to. In this discussion, we explored the technologies of self, heritage, 3D modelling, and the inclusiveness of technology, and I agree with all of that, but I think we shouldn't get over-excited. Excitement is good, over-excitement is not good. At the end of the day, we are humans, we are vibrational, soulful beings and it's important not to forget that, and machine learning has not attained that level.
I think we can agree that there is a lot to be excited about with technology. In every way, today is better than the Stone Age because of technology. But we should not just be excited, we should also be terrified and make sure that we steer this ever more powerful technology towards good uses and good stewards, otherwise we'll be living in 1984 very soon, or something even worse.
If we can get this right, then there is an incredible heritage both to create and to preserve. What we've also learned through science is that we have completely underestimated our human potential. We used to run around trying not to get stepped on by bigger animals or starve to death and now we realize that we are really the captains of our own destiny. If we do the right things with technology, we can create a fantastic future, living healthy lives on Earth for billions of years and beyond, maybe even into the cosmos. So I'm hoping that we can work together to both create a fantastic heritage and then celebrate it in the UNESCO spirit.
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Five dialogue sessions covering five themes take place in 2022, each joined by thinkers in paired dialogue from diverse regions. The interdisciplinary dialogues inspire new visions for the next 50 years of World Heritage.