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A prominent philosopher of the 20th century, Nikolai Berdyaev, believed that the key question of philosophy lies in the problem of the relationship between the free will of humankind and the free will of God. Humanity’s free will ends at a place where the freedom of God’s will begins. Yet where does that line start?

The rapid development of artificial intelligence shows the acuteness of this problem from another perspective, especially in the area of the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Undoubtedly, this is a direct contradiction to international humanitarian law and, in particular, the Martens clause. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

The origins of the problem lie much deeper. The philosophical foundation of the challenges in developing technology and artificial intelligence that humankind face were uncovered by Nikolai Berdyaev in 1931 in his work, The Spiritual Condition of the Contemporary World.

The problem he articulates is that humanity took on God’s burden but failed to carry it. 

Now, the question facing humankind, in the development of artificial intelligence or autonomous weapons is as follows: where does the freedom of a machine’s will and autonomy end, and the will of humanity begin?

In this regard N. Berdyaev aptly notes: “Man [sic] is shaken and crushed by the might of technology, making all his life topsy-turvy. Man himself has created it, it is the product of his genius, of his reason, of his inventiveness, it is a child of the human spirit. Man has succeeded in unlocking secret powers of nature and using them for his own ends, of introducing a teleological principle into the activity of mechanical-physical-chemical powers. But to master the results of his work man has not succeeded. Technology has come to seem more powerful than man himself, it subjugates him to itself. The crisis of our time is to a remarkable degree begotten by technology, which man lacks the strength to deal with.”

Further he says: “Technology has ceased to be neutral… Man has succeeded in creating a new world. Within the machine is present the reasoning power of man, within it operates a teleological principle. Technology creates an atmosphere, saturated with energies, which earlier were hidden within the depths of nature. And man has no assurance that he is in a condition to breathe in the new atmosphere. Into the hands of man technology puts a terrible and unprecedented power, a power, which can be to the destroying of mankind.” 

Going back to initial question of freedom of will, we need to remember two key characteristics of artificial intelligence.

Nobody can guarantee that a machine, which is being used in peaceful way, will not “decide” to act against a human at a certain point.

The development of such systems has far-ranging unpredictable consequences.

We still have time and opportunity to draw a clear boundary between the machine and humanity, and ensure the machine remains under meaningful human control. This boundary exists in the unconditional recognition of life and the right for life as the highest values, and the recognition of the principles of morality and ethics to be solely the sphere of responsibility of a person.


By Alimzhan Akhmetov

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