¿Dónde está la plaza pública en la era de la información digital? con Stelios Vassilakis

9 de febrero de 2022

En este episodio del podcast "Iniciativa Inteligencia Artificial e Igualdad", Anja Kaspersen, investigadora principal, y Joel Rosenthal, presidente de Carnegie Council , se sientan con Stelios Vassilakis, de la Fundación Stavros Niarchos, para mantener una interesante conversación sobre cómo preservar y potenciar la ética del espacio público. ¿Qué podemos aprender del ágora ateniense para orientar los medios y métodos de gobernar la inteligencia artificial?

ANJA KASPERSEN: Today I am joined by Joel Rosenthal and Stelios Vassilakis for an irreverently engaging conversation about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on democracy, what we can learn from the Athenian agora in preserving what it means to be human in the biodigital realm, and how ethics empower civil engagement.

Stelios Vassilakis is co-directing programs and strategic initiatives at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which is one of the leading international philanthropic organizations. Stelios is also a classics and modern Greek studies scholar, specializing in the works of Homer.

Joel Rosenthal is president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a distinguished public intellectual of international relations and foreign policy.

Before handing the floor over to Joel to guide us through this conversation, I am very curious about these concepts that are guiding the work of both of your institutions. For the Stavros Niarchos Foundation it is empowering humanity, and for Carnegie Council it is about empowering ethics, and obviously there is a strong link between the two.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Sure. I think in today's world we live in a very distrustful world, a crowded and overheated public space—if we can even identify that space, which we have talked about is a difficult space to even find—and so what we are trying to do at the beginning to empower ethics is first of all just to identify the issues, and to identify these issues, put a name on them, label them, and show them to be issues of competing values and competing interests that would benefit from reflection, dialogue, and discussion, even that question of identification and clarification of these issues and to bring them to the fore in a way that will not necessarily lead to polarization but can lead to constructive dialogue. That's the first step.

The second step is to provide thought leadership around these questions—there are people who have dedicated their lives to thinking about some of these issues and to studying these issues; they have great competence and some authority in speaking about these issues—and to identify those people and bring that thought leadership to bear on these questions.

Critically, though, it is not just about thinking. It is also about experience. There are people who are actually working on these issues, they are working these problems. It is part of their personal and professional life, and I think that the experience that they have themselves is almost as valuable if not more valuable than those who spend their lives thinking about these issues and creating scholarship around them. So when we talk about thought leadership we're talking about both scholarship and lived experience, Carnegie Council being a place where we can bring that expertise, if you will, to bear on these questions.

The third part that is also critical today is to create a community of engagement around these issues. The public square is hard to find. The Internet is not a public square, as we have discussed. You cannot assume an audience and you can't just sort of publish, post, convene, and whatever. You must proactively create a community of engagement around these issues, and that is a big part of what we're working on now.

Lastly it is to create educational resources around the issues. This goes to whether it is a video or a podcast like we're doing today, a journal article, or some kind of meeting or convening to be able to provide resources for people to take these issues forward in their own work.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: I will go to the empower humanity issue. This is us, the Foundation—in the 25th year of its life this has become the central tenet actually guiding the work that we do. As I said at the beginning, when I think about this idea of empowering humanity I think about three things: It means to empower people to live a dignified life, to provide people with an opportunity to live a life of high quality—living standards are of high quality—and also giving people an opportunity to be part of an inclusive citizenship.

These are things that are fundamental elements of the work that we do as a philanthropic institution. The work that we do every day around the globe addresses those very issues. We help people live a life of dignity, we help people to achieve a quality of life that is acceptable, and we also help people to be included and to benefit from all of these things that should be an automatic right for people who are part of a democratic society—that is, education, health, culture, all of these issues.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. We are great admirers of yours, the work that you have done at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and in particular the work that you have been doing on the concept of democracy. I have noticed that one of your principal activities is the Nostos Conference that you have been convening for I guess ten years or more.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: More than that now. We are going into the 12th year actually this June.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Congratulations. Having organized a few things like this in the past, I realize what a tremendous effort it takes, especially on the global scale that you work on.

I wanted to use this opportunity though to talk a little bit about the concept itself and the concept of nostos. To me it's a very powerful idea, and I know it has informed all of these gatherings. Maybe you could just go back to the origin moment for a minute and talk about why you're convening around that theme and that concept.


Let me start by saying that this is a conference and a festival. It started with the conference, and eventually it evolved into a week-long festival that includes the conference. It is a collaborative effort. A lot of people work very hard throughout the year in order to put this together within and outside the foundation.

Nostos entails the idea of homecoming and returning home. It is very closely associated for most people with Odysseus' efforts to return back to Ithaca from the war in Troy, but to me, if one wants to look at it from a broader point of view, it is about seeking what is absent, seeking what is not there.

In organizing this conference it is an attempt basically to seek and reimagine a public space, a public space where people convene and have a conversation about very critical issues, and at the same time they try not so much to answer questions but to raise more questions. I think this is the most important part of that conference. We don't claim that we have the answers, but what we want to do throughout this conference is to raise as many questions for the audience to contemplate. So it is seeking basically again to recreate an open space where people can engage with each other, which is something that I believe is beginning to get to be amiss in our days.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great. I want to come back to this, but maybe the next part of this conversation that would be helpful is to connect this to further work that you're doing around the concept of the agora, again a Greek concept which has provided an organizing principle for more of your work. Maybe you could connect the two a little bit.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: The idea of agora, of an open space, where people again can engage with each other, became very important to us as we as an organization began to realize—and this is something that is also promulgated by the Foundation's co- president Andreas Dracopoulos—that polarization had become a very, very critical issue, an issue that basically was taking apart our societies.

So we engaged in an effort to create spaces where the issue of polarization can be addressed, or, going back to the idea of the agora, to create a space where people can engage and disagree or agree with each other but without being polarized. I think we have gotten away completely from that particular concept, the ability to have a conversation in which we hold different opinions but which ends up not taking us apart completely.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: What do you see as the biggest challenges to that right now?

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: Polarization is one of them. Inequality is another one, the decline of public and civic institutions, the enormous distrust that exists in the public about governments and about public institutions. Those are the main challenges that I see right now.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: With that in mind, how do you think then about addressing it from where you are? Again, is it more listening and responding?

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: Look, a foundation cannot claim that they can address these issues. We simply cannot do it on our own. This is something that requires us a long-time effort, and this is something that requires collaboration between private and public institutions and a collaboration with a broader public. One cannot claim, I believe, that they can address this extremely complex issue on their own. But listening, I think, is the very first step.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I know that one of the initiatives the Foundation has been interested in and you have been interested in personally is the challenge of new technologies, particularly artificial intelligence, and the capacity of these new technologies to literally change the human experience and the way we think about our experience and what it even means to be human. Maybe you could share some of your ideas and some of your experiences in that area.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: I think the main issue here is who regulates these new technologies. They present a number of serious ethical questions, and right now I do not believe that we have a framework through which we can address these issues and these questions. This is not something to be blamed on scientists and researchers. They move at their own pace and according to their own schedules. Scientists and researchers in general are occupied with discovering things, and they move from one discovery to the next. As they do that, they do not have the time or the frame of mind to contemplate what are the consequences for the public domain of the work that they are doing.

I will give you one example. A solution had to be found, an answer had to be given, to the pandemic. People had to work really quickly, and they had to put a lot of effort into figuring out a vaccine. They did not have time to contemplate what all this meant—and I am not saying there aren't many ethical questions, I am just giving it as an example—that you are pressed for time and all that matters to you is providing a solution to a very difficult problem.

At the same time, there should be someone else and there should be a framework, a legal and institutional framework, that begins to address as these things are happening what are the legal ramifications and consequences of whatever is getting discovered, of whatever, let's say, evolution we are having on the scientific front for the general public, for us as human beings, for governance, all of these things. There have to be things put in place that at the same time are addressing these questions. This is not an issue that should concern scientists and researchers, in my view.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Right, the ethics and governance framework question.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: They cannot do it. They just cannot do it, and they should not be asked to do this.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: It would seem to me that there are more issues in front of us now, immediate issues right in front of us, that fall into this category. You mentioned the pandemic, but clearly climate change would be in that area as well.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: Artificial intelligence, as you mentioned, and a number of evolutionary discoveries on the medical and biological fronts. We are coming upon things that have the ability to alter radically who we are as human beings and how society works, and there are numerous, numerous questions that relate to those that have to do with who benefits from these discoveries, how do we understand ahead of time what the consequences would be, a number of different things that have to be addressed or considered at least.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Where do you see the process of sharing information and perhaps leading to some global coordination around these issues? It's not happening at the United Nations level or doesn't seem to be. Does it need to reside eventually at the United Nations level, or do there need to be new mechanisms for global coordination around these global-scale challenges?

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: I think there should be a mechanism. If the United Nations is the mechanism that addresses these issues, that can be debated. Many people can argue that this is an organization that cannot address such issues.

My answer to this is that we have to figure out an institutionalized way to address these questions, an institutionalized way that includes all of these different constituencies that are or should be part of this conversation. Again, is it the United Nations or something else, or will we create another institution? I don't know. I don't have the answer to that, but this is the only way for it to happen.

We go back then to the public having the ability to assign trust to such an institution. I think the pandemic is a great example. I don't necessarily want to talk about the pandemic a lot, although I wanted to mention a few things about the pandemic and nostos actually and what we discussed before. But I think what we have seen is such an incoherent response to the pandemic that raises these questions. There seems to be no institution right now—the World Health Organization should have been the one—that manages to address this issue in a way that people trust and in a way that people agree to.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: How do we rebuild trust in institutions? What tools do we have? Is this a leadership question? Is it a question of new institutions that are needed?

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: I think it has to start with trusting governments, with trusting public institutions. It is my personal belief that the Western world has gotten away from that. We tend to think, we tend to trust, we tend to believe more in the ability of the private sector to address such things, and we basically turn governments into a scapegoat.

Unless we begin to reverse this trend and unless we begin to rethink about governments as a way to address public issues, we are not going to be able to do it, and that is the big issue, that you have to trust that governments are in place to address these difficult issues and that they can do so as they have done so traditionally. They have always played that role. They have always been able to take care of the weakest and to address such critical issues. Not any longer. They are not trusted to do so.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: You mentioned some of these issues that came up in the context of nostos with the pandemic. Did you want to elaborate on that?

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: One of the things you mentioned when we started talking was about why the concept of nostos is very important now. I think it is particularly important now because if you look at this from the point of view of seeking what is absent, I think the pandemic fits into this conversation perfectly because we are at a stage right now that we are constantly seeking what we are missing, and what we are missing are the lives that we had before the pandemic.

This is why the concept of nostos is so relevant. This is what every single one of us is thinking right now. The pandemic has taken us away from things that we took as given and standard. We are very nostalgic, although the world "nostalgic" can be interpreted in many different ways. We constantly want to go back into, if you want to use the term "prelapsarian phase," that is, before the fall. That is what we are looking for right now, and that is why nostos is so relevant as a concept today.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I will share with you my thinking when I was thinking about nostos coming into this conversation—the return home—and it fits in with what you were saying about what is missing. I will put on my American citizen hat for a moment, when I think of returning home and what does that mean, it means the basic principles that, at least in my life, I took for granted in my lived experience and my intellectual formation.

Those basic principles were pluralism—e pluribus unum, "out of many, one." That's what was to me distinct and exceptional about the United States, that we were multicultural or multiethnic, but we were plural, and that's what it was all about, and that was a strength. To me that's returning home. That is basic to what it actually means, and it also happens to be perhaps missing at the same time.

Also the basic principles when we were talking about ethics—what are the basic principles that we stand for? For us it is rights, but of course rights are connected to responsibilities and that whole question. We used to have a rational framework to discuss these things, and that seems to be missing, or at least it's in some jeopardy, a rational framework for even agreeing to disagree about certain aspects of rights and responsibilities.

That is obviously the Declaration of Independence, something we stand for, and then of course fairness—the Constitution. To me, that was always home, that we lived in a society that at least attempted some notion—again, highly debated, much discussed, and frequently disagreed upon, but we were at least arguing about the same thing, about what's fair and what's unfair, and that we could create an arena for all of this to happen. I suppose my nostalgia is for that, that there were some identifiable principles.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: You're not the only one actually.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: My concern now is—it's interesting what you said about governments, and I will come back to that—particularly in light of new technologies and new capacities on top of this environment you have described, there is the capture, if you will, by technology and those developing it, the idea that commercial interests are still overwhelming. In fact, it's similar to what you were saying about the vaccine, that the people who are building these algorithms or whatever are so busy doing it that they may not completely understand the results of their work. Also, just the commercial pressure in that area.

Also, on the government side, yes, there is the positive side: Governments should be earning our trust and be working in our interests, but of course what we are seeing too is the idea that governments are capturing the capacities to amass power and to gain power through new technologies and through the weakness of our civil society. When I am thinking about ethics from Carnegie Council's perspective, we are going to need some response to the power side of it, what governments are trying to do but also what the commercial interests are trying to do, and there needs to be some answer. Just some thoughts.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: I absolutely agree with what you are saying. Obviously this is the focus of the work that you do and the institution does. I am not an ethicist by any means or an expert, but I think one of the problems we are facing today is that we do not understand any longer what ethical behavior is and what it means to have specific ethical guidelines. To me, this is the result of confusing morality with ethics. We are engaged in a conversation about morality, increasingly so, and we are moving away from a conversation about ethics, and these are completely different concepts and things.

To my mind at least, when you talk about morality you are dealing with subjective views and behaviors and when you are talking about ethics you are dealing with objective views and behaviors. It used to be the case that there was a very clear line demarcating the two. I don't think that exists any longer.

I think the conversation about all of these issues that we are having today—not only us here but that the world is having today—is a conversation that these issues are approached from a moral perspective rather than an ethical one. That's where the landscape gets much more muddled and much more difficult to address because you are beginning to talk about issues that are highly, highly subjective.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's why, for me, the cardinal principle for us is this concept of pluralism because if ethics is a sort of process of understanding but then also beginning to weigh different options and tradeoffs and also competing goods and sometimes irreconcilable goods, the price of admission is pluralism.

You have to understand that to have this conversation and to understand that it will be imperfect, that it's not a list of moral principles—these are the commandments or these are the lists, this is the checklist—but no, it's a process of engagement, discussion, dialogue, and tradeoff, but what I think is missing is the commitment to that.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: I agree, and I think we are living in an era where we are paying tremendous attention to subjectivity and what is relevant and what is not relevant. That is very difficult. Everything is subjective. Everything is relevant, and so you have an open-ended conversation about everything, and there are no guiding standards according to which you can go by on a number of different fronts. How many times do you hear about every issue, "This is relevant here, but it is not there?" It is subjective to this, that, or the other.

We cannot live like this. There are certain issues that require guidelines that cannot be debated actually. There are certain rules that are acceptable to society, and we used to have them I think, but we now are going away from them. We are thinking again, not as a whole but as individuals, this is a trend, and that is why we are getting into trouble.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: This gets to the big point, which is embedded in the concept of pluralism. There is something universal in the human experience, and there is something common about being human. I think this gets to your point about universality.

I think of it in two ways. One is, again, what is common about being human, but then also the universality of our experience. We are here together, increasingly together, and I do think the story of this century so far is that integration, if you will, and common threats, whether it's pandemics, climates, AI, or whatever. The world is literally getting smaller in that sense.

You are right. We do need some—but people tend to back away from the idea of universal today. What do you think about that?

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: What I think is universal for human beings is a desire to form communities and to live close with each other. We know that. We also know that in order to do that, whether you want to call it democracy or whatever else you may choose to call it, it requires listening to the other. I am one of these people who always thought that marriage or living with another human being was the ultimate democratic act from the point of view that you are coexisting with someone with whom you may have completely different approaches about every single issue, but you have to negotiate that space to coexist as a couple at the end of the day. I think we are getting away from that again, which is I think ingrained into human beings to live together as communities, and that's where we are beginning to have serious trouble.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: With that in mind, I am curious to go back to your intellectual formation. What got you into this business in the first place and your study of classical philosophy? How does that inform your thinking today in terms of these kinds of questions, and what do we need to bring into the foreground from that ancient world and apply it today?

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: I was very privileged to have the opportunity to study with people who were giants in their fields, and those were people who were very, very generous and gracious about sharing knowledge and about teaching. That's how it started for me, and then I was very privileged and lucky to come upon—although I had done things before I came to the Foundation—to come upon the work of the Foundation that fitted my interests intellectually but also appealed to me tremendously from the point of view of doing things for the common good.

I think the most important lesson in relation to this conversation, because the classical world can provide points for discussion about every single item and topic, is that I would go back to Aristotle's concept of what it means to be a political being—political not in the way that we understand politics today, but as being part of the polis, of the group, of the many. That is the most important lesson that we can take from the classics when it comes to this particular issue of creating a public space and creating the opportunity to have an open conversation and an open debate. We have to understand that we are part of the many, we are not living in isolation.

We have lost this concept of what it means to be a political being. We have no concept of this today. This very idea that I work at a place where all I do every day is how I can figure out how to help in the most effective way those who are most in need and what can I do to benefit the general public to me is such a privilege. I don't have to worry about raising the money to do so. All I have to do is think about how I can do that. To me that is a tremendous privilege and has formed the way that I think about things on an everyday level.

The questions that we are facing today are universal questions. These are questions that have occupied human beings forever. I am not going to be one of these people who says that we have to go back to the classics and that this is the only answer to everything, blah, blah, blah. I don't believe that. But what I believe is that humanity is not a linear march forward. The way history works is cyclical. What is happening today we have seen before. This idea of constant progress is a dream. It's a delusion, for the world is not working that way.

We have to go back. We have to go to the past and see how people addressed certain issues before, but we also have to understand how people thought about these issues before us and what kind of answers were given and the intellectual process that went into addressing these issues. That is the only way we can understand what is happening today, and that is the only way that we can begin to think about addressing today's issues in the best way possible. We have to understand how people thought about these things before us, and I would leave it at that.

Again, I am not going to say that unless we go back to Homer, Plato, or Aristotle—and there are many, many debates about what those people said today—but the important thing is that we understand how thinkers throughout time have contemplated these issues because there is so much we can learn from that process, and we tend not to do so.

Our time is the time of the now, is the time of the spectacle, is the time of the ten-minute attention span, or much less than ten minutes—that's it. We don't tend to go back. Everything moves forward. Everything changes constantly. So this idea of looking back at what has been accumulated in terms of knowledge is something that we do not aspire to any longer.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: That was the question that I was going to ask, which is it seems that this is not something that is valued in society today. Even just looking at the state of the humanities in the university world but even broader, in civil society. We do have robust cultural institutions. They still exist. But again, in terms of energy and in terms of value, they seem to be devalued, and you think this is just where we are? Is it just the spirit of the age?

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: I think it is the direct outcome of new technologies that we are engaging with—the Internet, smart phones. All of these technologies are conducive to constantly living in the minute. Also they have taken away the ability to congregate. Again, this idea of a public space where we congregate in order to discuss things, in order to agree or disagree vehemently actually, but to be able to do so has gotten away completely.

We agree and disagree digitally, but I don't think it's the same. It is not the same because you never think when you do that digitally of who is sitting across from you. You are never thoughtful. You are just reacting. You are constantly, constantly reacting because you want to get something out there because that is what matters, having your voice being out there, not what you are saying, but your mere presence is what is valued. Nobody cares what everybody else says.

Look at Twitter. How much can you keep up with devices like this? It is all about who posted something and not about what they posted necessarily but keep posting, posting, posting, posting. It is the modus vivendi of our times.

I do not think that the Internet constitutes a public square. I do not. I can bring forward many, many examples of why I do not believe that. I am basically one of these people who abides by what Jane Jacobs, the great urbanist, said about neighborhood corners being the absolutely most democratic spaces that have ever existed. It used to be that on a neighborhood corner in a diverse neighborhood, people would congregate, disagree completely with each other, make a lot of noise, fight, blah, blah, blah, but essentially come to a conversation that cannot exist today any longer.

That idea of a public space has disappeared. We have to have only organized public spaces, which is a very, very different concept.

I think the Internet is a cacophony of voices. It is not a public space. Again, we tend to think that because we can express any opinion we want that this constitutes a public space, but it's not. It's just a monologue by everybody who is involved in these things.

I remember when the Arab Spring was happening, there was a conversation about whether or not the Internet had empowered that whole movement, and I was struck by how misguided people were in relation to that, that because you had the ability to gather people together that meant that this could be a sustained reaction to what they were trying to react to. Just because you can send messages and say to people, "Gather at Tahrir Square at 5:00am," it does not mean necessarily that you can create a movement. You need something completely different. That is what I think about the Internet public space today. I think we are ascribing powers to it that do not exist.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Again, coming back to the library, sort of a radically democratic concept in the sense that it gives access to knowledge to every person. Why is this important? Because it enables, it literally empowers every person to think for him or herself. To me this is the basis, the fundamental building block. It has to go along with the culture that you are describing, Stelios, which is one of mutual respect and dialogue. That all comes with it, but the essential element is that capacity for human beings to first of all learn but then also to express.

Sadly, it seems to be vanishing. You have spoken very, very eloquently of the need to be open and the need to be inclusive and the need to be diverse. This is the spirit of our age. This is what's happening right now. There is a leveling, well overdue, of equal regard for every person, equal regard for every human being, their voice, and so on.

Along with that, though, a society does need leadership. It needs the people who have accomplished, who have learned, and who will use that learning in a way that will help society along. Anyway, there is no real answer to this question, but I feel like this is part of what we are looking at right now in part of this distrust equation. I am curious if you have any thoughts about that.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: Yes. I think we are in a moment where there is a leadership gap, and this is not in relation to the United States only, but this relates globally. We seem not to be able to find the types of leaders that we need today. When I think about leadership, I think of people who can lead by example and people who understand what it means to be decisive because that is what is required when you are in a leadership position today. We have gotten completely away from that very concept.

When I think about leadership, and I often think about it, I think about Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. When he comes upon the knot and has to solve it, he gets the sword out and basically destroys it. This is the type of decisiveness that is required in critical moments, and this is the type of decisiveness that we do not see manifested in the leaders of today.

Of course, then we go to the issue of trust. There is no trust any longer, and there is no trust that leaders are serving the common good. There is no such trust. They are always seen as serving their own private interests or the interests of the private sector, and that is very damaging.

ANJA KASPERSEN: There is no phronesis among our leadership.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: No time to think about these things, no time at all. No wisdom.

We spoke about the fact that as technological change and technological innovation is happening there is no time—from the scientists' point of view actually; that's how we started—for the scientists to stop, think carefully, and contemplate what would be the consequences of what they are inventing.

It seems also to be the case that it is not only the scientists who are not doing that. Society in general collectively does not have the time, the attention span, or, let me put it in a different way, the will to be able to do so. Phronesis means basically a careful consideration, a wise consideration of things—not rushed, not tempestuous, not sentimental, and not emotional. It implies a certain type of wisdom and wiseness which I think is completely absent from the conversation that we are having about the impact and the significance of all of these new technologies.

The reaction we are having is a knee-jerk reaction. We need the technologies, we use them where we feel; but there is no phronesis about it, there is no careful consideration.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: But that careful consideration is practical. It has practical value.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: This is the part that can be frustrating because oftentimes the ethics questions, the values questions, or the societal questions get put aside as opposed to being seen as intrinsic, that it actually has intrinsic and practical applied value to the system as opposed to, "Well, it's an effect of the system" or "It's downstream of the system" or "We will worry about that later," that it's intrinsic.

This to me seems to be exactly what is missing, that these questions are sort of dismissed. Because they're not engineering questions and not implementation questions, they are sort of second-order questions, if you will.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: The idea of phronesis is an idea of process basically: How do you contemplate critical issues? That's what it is all about. What is the process that you need to apply in order to be able to deal with issues that are very complex and have the potential to radically alter not only us as human beings but what is happening around us and how societies work?

That very process of careful deliberation, of careful thinking, and carefully considering everything that relates to these things and everything that has happened around us is not in place right now when we are having a conversation about where are we going with these new technologies. It's absent. It's completely absent.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: If nothing else, we can provide a kind of counternarrative. I agree with you, Stelios. All my work has been as a realist. I think of myself as a realist.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: So I start there. But I think there is still a case—and we can't give up—to be made on realist grounds to go back to common values, common interests.

This is not a religious thing and this is not an idealistic thing. This is a survival thing. Basically, my understanding of ethics is that it's just basic life, it's basic health, it's just how to live.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: You are absolutely right, and that is the essence of that word phronesis—practical wisdom, a practical approach to things, practical virtue. We have gone away from these things. We don't seem to see them from a practical perspective.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Yes, that's the story. A conversation for another time is how and why it vanished and, again from my perspective, it vanished so quickly. You can almost look at the middle of the last decade. We tapped on the glass and it just broke. Maybe you see it differently, Stelios, but to me it was quite sudden. But maybe I was sleepwalking a little bit too long myself.

STELIOS VASSILAKIS: We don't have the ability to—and again, we shouldn't—detect patterns early enough because we are so consumed with what is happening around us every day that we cannot really see those patterns, and that addresses the other term* that you use on rights.

Again, if we can stop and deliberate and think carefully, perhaps we can, at least certain parts. Sometimes you have to wait 10–15 years in order to be able to have a complete picture of what is happening, but we are not thinking at all in those terms. I think we don't seek patterns at all. It's a sound bite and moving forward to the next thing as quickly as we can.

And you are right. It seems to us that it happened suddenly. The best of people, the most brilliant of people, are the people who are the most generous with their thoughts and their knowledge. Very mediocre people were the ones who were guarding the knowledge as if it was something that was so special—and it wasn't because they were mediocre. The other ones actually wanted to throw things out at you so that they can hear what you have to say and start a conversation which helps them discover other things as well.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: This is my experience. This is wonderful. Yes. We will find a way to continue this conversation.


ANJA KASPERSEN: Wow! This has truly been a fascinating conversation with lots of fodder for further thought.

Thank you so much, Stelios and Joel, for sharing your thoughts and insights, thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in, and a special thanks to the team at the Carnegie Council for hosting and producing this podcast. For the latest content on ethics and international affairs, be sure to follow us on social media @carnegiecouncil.

My name is Anja Kaspersen, and I hope we earned the privilege of your time.

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