One of the more interesting developments in artificial intelligence has been the heightened interest in philosophy. Indeed, in recent weeks, Nick Bostrom, a leading Oxford-based philosopher on existential risk, was invited by Google Mind to join a form of ethics panel to ‘steer’ the company’s artificial intelligence research and development.

    Why this should be so is – at least to philosophers – is far from surprising. Why shouldn’t new technologies or more correctly, their properties and consequences, be discussed and debated? Why, when we have leading figures in the science community such as Stephen Hawking claiming that mankind could be extinguished by machine intelligence, should we not probe deeply into this new field of human endeavor? Indeed, philosopher Margaret A. Boden, in her 2016 book ‘AI: Its nature and future’ has done just that.

    Yet when scanning the philosophical commentary, one is immediately struck by the somewhat ‘introverted’ nature of the material. So much of the academic output of what might loosely be described as the philosophy or artificial intelligence is closely aligned to science, whether this is speculation on aspects of cognition, artificial neural networks or machine linguistics. It would also appear to be written for the academic philosophy community, so laden is it with academic jargon and ‘insider’ debate. This might change in the future as the subject seeps out of the rather specialized domains into mainstream discourse but for the time being, the philosophy seems bound in a scientific straightjacket.

    However, one should not feel restrained by the current philosophical approach. Unfashionable as it might seem, there is much to be said about dipping into the philosophy greats for enlightenment and yes, some of it does touch on the many great talking points of current artificial intelligence.

    It was the late Herbert Dreyfus, then researching at MIT, who in the 1960s likened artificial intelligence to ‘alchemy’, argued that machines simply lacked intuition, amongst other things and would be unable to compete with human intelligence. Dreyfus went on to publish several critiques of artificial intelligence including ‘What Computers Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason’ and ‘Being-In-the-World.’

    Interestingly enough, Dreyfus often drew upon the work of another famous philosopher, Martin Heidegger. In his famous philosophical treatise ‘Being and Time’ and in his later work ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, Heidegger emphasizes the place of ‘Dasein’ or being in the world and issues warnings to the latent risks associated with society enthralled to technology. As one examines Heidegger’s philosophy, one is struck by the concern he shows to preserve a concept of mankind that one could argue is ‘mythical’ but which stubbornly maintains a resonance against today’s societal dysfunction and the search for meaning which technology is influencing.

    A notable feature of Heidegger’s philosophical output is his criticism of Rene Descartes. The Frenchman’s reflection on man as a machine, comprising mind and body, is arguably reflected in much of the approaches to artificial intelligence and general philosophy of the mind. Although there has been much philosophical speculation under the bridge since Descartes expressed his ‘cogito, ergo sum’ – much of it critical or more nuanced than Descartes would have had it, it is still worth noting that Cartesian models can still hold their own in philosophical speculative thinking, which in turn influences many a proponent of artificial intelligence research. As the search for artificial general intelligence moves apace, who cannot say that the man responsible in many peoples’ eyes for ending metaphysical explanations of the world has nothing to say?

    Perhaps the final word on the voices of the past could be given to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the epitome of the scholastic system shunned by people like Descartes and very much ignored by modern philosophers and scientists alike. Aquinas, who did much to introduce Aristotle, the ‘first scientist’ into the western canons of thinking has been neglected for too long.

    As artificial intelligence moves in new directions, especially with regard to life sciences and robotics, there is much in Aquinas’s ‘Summa Theologia’ that reflects on the modern debate about creation, about artificial life forms and and what it means to be human. How do we create intelligence that recognizes and adheres to virtue, grasps the nature of sin or appreciates a concept like the soul? Indeed, one needs to look no further than Aquinas for an appreciation of what constitutes human intelligence or the resemblance between metaphysical ‘angels’ and non-corporeal intelligence, a subject dear to the heart of trans-humanists. Or if you prefer your philosophical speculation to be more grounded, could Aquinas’s ‘Just War’ concept not have something to say about the ethical quandary raised by Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems?

    Artificial Intelligence needs philosophy. There are fundamental issues arising from it, which impact on us as individuals and as a society and these cannot be debated by scientists and technicians alone. Modern philosophy, which arguably seeks to become a science itself, might help but deep down, I feel that the Philosophy Greats still have something to say.