Wrangling Intelligence

Like the nuclear era before it, today’s era of artificial intelligence (AI) has been welcomed throughout the world with wonder and equal parts of enthusiasm and trepidation. No doubt, it is a once-in-a-century game-changer. The questions I have are, will we succeed in applying the lessons from the development and deployment of nuclear fission, or someday be viewing the AI version of “Oppenheimer” at the 2090 Academy Awards? Will we summon the discipline to moderate AI to truly advance humankind, or will it be weaponized to destroy our civilization?

Today, both seem like distinct possibilities. Reality will likely be a mixed bag. Probably at best a mixed bag. There are, however, tools from the softer social sciences and philosophy that we can apply to tilt the scales in favor of advancing humankind instead of destroying it. We must put as much energy into the application of those tools today as we are into the mad rush with which technology companies are pursuing more robust and more capable versions of AI. Philosophy is often ridiculed for its lack of production, especially when compared to science and technology. Its job, however, is not to produce breakthroughs for the advancement of humanity; it is to keep those of science and technology from becoming madness. In the nuclear era, Einstein knew this as Oppenheimer eventually did, too. But not before it was too late.

Capitalism does a magnificent job of creating wealth in a direct and observable manner, but only an indirect and often uneven job of furthering the well-being of all humanity. For that, we need the more layered and nuanced application of wisdom that was seldom found in the ego-driven mania of Los Alamos during the nuclear age, or Silicon Valley, or Redmond, Washington of today’s burgeoning age of AI. We must be heedful of those among us who know that the truly wealthy are those who want what they already have; who have left their egos behind to sit in the seat of the soul where eternal wisdom resides. Those who focus on thriving rather than striving.

As a young executive/entrepreneur, I often argued that success was dependent on whether you prevailed in two of three factors—resources, intelligence, and intensity—as long as one of the two was intensity. I now understand that this troika needs tweaking. The reason is quite basic: we have transitioned from a perpetual state of scarcity to one of abundance in the United States and many other parts of the developed world.[i] Today, zero-sum win/lose thinking is largely obsolete due to abundance. As such, resources as a factor have declined in importance, or at least in the highly contested pursuit thereof. Intelligence remains important and is obviously developing rapidly with AI. It is the critical factor of intensity that needs to be reconsidered in the age of abundance.

Intensity in the old troika meant to consider the level of ambition, passion, and will power—the energy of commitment. It’s what Ukraine has as its principal edge in fighting Putin’s Russia. As mentioned above, it was the one domain you must dominate to succeed. There is a better, more wholistic, way to consider intensity in an age of abundance, and that is within the realm of intention. Intention in this rendering includes the energy of commitment as well as other considerations like purpose and meaning. It is the gateway in the troika for morality and wisdom. Intention becomes the rudder on the ship; the navigational guardrails to prevent invention and innovation from tipping into madness.

Intelligence, whether natural or artificial, organic or generative, must be moderated by intention to avoid peril. Intention that is founded in the fundamental values of humankind—our virtues. In much the same way as the theologian Paul Tillich argued about another troika: that social justice is power moderated by love; human progress is intelligence, moderated by intention, supported by resources. Intention is not, however, a traditional locus of assessment in Western culture. In the West, we are much more focused on outcomes as a measure of success than we are intention. In Eastern culture, it is the opposite: intention is more important than outcomes. Hence, we Westerners embrace the unfortunate maxim, “the ends justify the means.” We need to think long and hard about this orientation if we are to succeed in moderating AI.

In a functioning democracy, government usually provides the guardrails to protect society from the often-perilous effects of ambitious enterprise. Unfortunately, in America today, this leadership must come from elsewhere. Moral leadership that informs the tools of restraint might otherwise come from American religious institutions, who were instrumental in human and civil rights issues in the 1960s, but today have been hollowed out by leadership that is more inclined to internal power struggles and political aggrandizement that have left their moral voice mute.        Further, it does not appear, especially since observing the power struggle earlier this year at OpenAI, that the tech industry has any hope of self-moderation. There are glimmers of hope, however, in teams who focus on the application of AI rather than its creation, and who draw on just enough academic/philosophical influences to tame the beast for the benefit of humanity.

One example is Moses Ma of FutureLab Consulting. Ma is a contributor to “The Tao of Innovation” for Psychology Today and I first encountered him at the Conference on World Affairs this spring at the University of Colorado. He was the proverbial rudder on the ship of a number of panels considering AI in world/human affairs. He suggested in “How to Fix OpenAI” that we take instruction from Nobel economist Elinor Ostrom whose work focused on “the equitable management of the commons” to support new leadership regimes (as opposed to regulatory regimes) that dealt with “coordination challenges” including things like well-defined boundaries in applications, monitoring, procedures for conflict resolution, and local autonomy (among others). The goal is that “member groups become so cooperative that the group becomes a higher-level organism in its own right.”[ii] Decentralized non-hierarchical organizations always have challenges with cohesion that can drift into chaos and anarchy, but the notion of moral leadership fostered by organizations that compete to cooperate is worth consideration in this age of abundance.

We can learn from the past if we commit to do so. In our capitalist society, competition is fostered more than cooperation, which historically has produced big benefits. In the collision of our current state of abundance and AI, however, we have an opportunity to do things differently than we did in the nuclear era. Big Tech is unlikely to lead on this issue. The fact is they have little incentive to do so. It will be up to scholars and philosophers who have sensibilities that run to higher objectives and longer time horizons—like Moses Ma—to shine the light on different options to both preserve and advance our civilization.


[i] See William Steding, “The Tragedy of Abundance,” February 16, 2022 here: https://ameritecture.com/the-tragedy-of-abundance/ .

[ii] See Moses Ma, “How to Fix OpenAI,” January 14, 2024 here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-tao-of-innovation/202312/how-to-fix-openai