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The Renaissance transformed Florence. What might AI do

Is AI Enabling Our Next Renaissance?

By Sarah Daly, Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane

 

Europe’s Renaissance sparked a flowering of free thought and new ideas in the arts and elsewhere. AI could too.

Walking through the streets of Florence, there is a resounding beauty that still echoes into contemporary society.

Much of Florence was developed during the Renaissance – a time when perspectives on the world shifted – and we can feel that still. The Renaissance (from the 14th to the 17th century) marked a significant transformation in art, culture, politics, science, and the fabric of society.

Now, we are poised for an era that can be compared with the Renaissance. Artificial intelligence is enabling this inflection point.

‘What does it mean to be human?’

As humans, we tend to search for meaning. It is when we have something to push against, that the question “What does it mean to be human?” comes to the fore.

The Renaissance emphasised the importance of human beings over the divine. The philosophy of humanism shifted our perspective to the value and potential of individual achievement. This led to a renewed interest in the literature, art, and philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome, and laid the groundwork for modern human rights and the concept of individualism.

The AI revolution challenges and extends the concept of humanism by raising questions about what it means to be human in an age of advanced machine intelligence.

While the Renaissance celebrated human potential and achievement, AI prompts a re-evaluation of human roles, capabilities, and ethics in a world where machines can perform tasks traditionally thought to require human intelligence.

So, what does it mean to be human? Is it our capability, or is it our consciousness? As machine capability evolves, these questions evolve.

One area our thinking is developing quite quickly is around the concept of creativity.

Creativity is thought to be a human trait. However machines, including generative AI, are enhancing and augmenting human creative capabilities. They can be considered creative in their own right. This is providing the opportunity to reflect on what creativity is, and more deeply understand the differences between human creativity and machine creativity.

Looking backwards to move forwards

The Renaissance saw a revival of thought, where scholars drew inspiration from ancient Roman and Greek (and perhaps Chinese) art, literature, and scientific discoveries.

This revival brought leaps in creative, scientific, technological and philosophical thought.

AI also looks backwards into data that already exists, and makes predictions. It is a type of ‘thought’ that has enormous potential for our future. By looking at historical data, literature, and images to train algorithms and models, developers are training AI to achieve new ways of perceiving and understanding our world.

AI then enables us to explore new types of decision-making and creativity. Conversations on the risks and rewards inherent in AI are varied, nuanced, and changing quickly.

The scientific and creative revolutions evolved together

When science and creativity collide, great things can happen. Leonardo da Vinci did not see a divide between science and art. To him, these were interconnected disciplines, each informing and enhancing the other.

His studies of light and perspective in art (think Mona Lisa) led to a greater understanding of optics. His explorations of anatomy contributed to more lifelike representations of the human figure. This holistic view allowed him to apply discoveries from one field to problems in another.

Da Vinci’s creativity wasn’t confined to traditional art. He was a prolific inventor and engineer. His notebooks are filled with designs for flying machines, armoured vehicles, and weapons that were ahead of his time.

AI is again bringing science and creativity together. In particular, the science behind generative AI is prompting an enormous shift in creativity.

While the growth of AI has predominantly been led by engineers, there is now a ‘coming together’ of the creative industries, science and engineering. This has been evolving in film and gaming for some time. While it has led to opportunities that did not exist a few years ago,  the disruption is palpable for artists who feel under threat.

Exploration and growth, with greater consideration

The Renaissance saw significant global exploration and expansion, but growth was not one-way in the 14th-17th century, just as it is not now.

There was a lasting impact on global trade, colonisation, and cultural exchange. Looking back at our history helps us to see where the opportunities were, and the enormous costs involved in discovery, from lost cultures to mass displacement. Hopefully, this might help us to see into the future with more care.

Nations are now coming together to explore the impact of AI, recognising its potential to transform and enhance human wellbeing, peace and prosperity, and acknowledging the risks. In November 2023 a group of nations met to discuss how AI might be designed, developed, deployed, and used, in a safe manner. This resulted in the Bletchley Declaration, which states:.

“We resolve to work together in an inclusive manner to ensure human-centric, trustworthy and responsible AI that is safe, and supports the good of all through existing international fora and other relevant initiatives, to promote cooperation to address the broad range of risks posed by AI.”

AI has enabled an opportunity for greater co-operation between nations. How this plays out, only time will tell.

Education and scholarship flourished

The Renaissance witnessed a transformation in education, with the establishment of universities and the proliferation of printed books. This democratised learning, making knowledge more accessible and leading to increased literacy.

AI is again transforming education and scholarship by making learning more personalised, accessible and efficient. It can support educators in designing curriculums, enhance student engagement and accelerate research.

AI can be used as a writing co-pilot, which can speed up the process enormously. There are, however, large caveats to using AI in writing, including the phenomenon that AI hallucinates: absolutely everything must be checked. It should also be noted that researchers need to be experts in their field already to be able to usefully direct AI to help.

Shift in political and economic power

Thinkers like Niccolò Machiavelli (The Prince), who analysed the functioning of republics and the nature of power, influenced the development of political theory that would eventually shape modern republican and democratic systems of governance.

The Renaissance also contributed to the gradual shift from theocratic to secular governance. It saw the emergence of strong, centralised states, reducing the influence of the church in political affairs. This laid the groundwork for the modern nation-state.

The seeds of mercantilist policy, which emphasises the accumulation of wealth by the state to increase its power, were planted during the Renaissance, and fully blossomed into the 18th century. This era also encouraged capitalism through the rise of the merchant or trader class.

Now, the nature of power may again be shifting.

In our modern world, it could be argued that they who own the data hold the power. AI, and the companies which are developing it and who hold our data, could enable a shift in power. The large technology firms like Google and Microsoft (which own 49 percent of Open AI) are better funded and potentially more powerful than most governments.

There are less seismic ways AI is developing political and economic thought, including around enhancing decision-making processes by providing leaders with comprehensive data analysis, predictive modelling, and scenario simulation. This might encourage a shift towards more evidence-based policy-making, potentially leading to more effective and responsive governance.

AI’s automation of jobs has significant implications for labour markets, leading to displacement but also the creation of new types of employment. Economic theories may evolve to address these shifts, focusing on redistribution models, universal basic income, or new forms of worker retraining and education.

AI is also a key driver of innovation, affecting economic growth models. In one paper, researchers at McKinsey predicted AI could add AUD$4 trillion to the Australian economy alone.

As AI continues to evolve, so too will the theories and practices that seek to understand and shape its impact on society. This is a space we need to be actively involved in, rather than passive. We get to direct how these policies develop. The more diverse our perspectives on the matter, the better the outcomes for everyone.

Sarah Daly is a QUT PhD candidate working on her thesis investigating how trust affects the adoption of artificial intelligence. She is also an artist who collaborates with AI in her creative practice. You can find her work at www.sarahdaly.art.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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