In Conclusion: An Aristotelian Take on Tech

You’re probably wondering about that title. There’s no typo or weird autocorrect there—I really am about to talk about Aristotle here. So what does Aristotle even have to do with tech, anyways?

Truthfully, Aristotle has absolutely nothing to do with tech. He lived in a time before artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, robotics, ones and zeros, and even before electricity. If he were alive today, however, I’m certain he would have a lot to say about social media, emerging technologies and digital business (see what I did there?). Since he’s not here to talk about it, I’m going to take a stab at applying his philosophy to these oh-so-contemporary topics.

There is a topic we’ve discussed a great deal in this class that I think ties closely to a central part of Aristotle’s philosophical ideals: the so-called “creepy-cool line.” If you’re in this class and you’ve paid attention even ten percent of the time (though hopefully it’s been more than that), you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, allow me to elaborate. The creepy-cool line is exactly what it sounds like: the fine line between which a particular technology or application of technology alternates between creepy and cool. Some of the “coolest” technologies really toe the line here. At what point does a technology become so sophisticated that it becomes downright creepy?

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Aristotle would probably have a lot to say about modern technology.

A central tenet of Aristotle’s philosophy is his idea of the golden mean. That is, that there exists a moral virtue between two vices. On one end of this moral continuum is a vice of excess, and on the other end is a vice of deficiency. For example, when it comes to how people respond to fear, the deficient end would be cowardice, the excessive end would be foolhardiness, and right in the middle lies the virtue of courage. Similarly, as it pertains to setting and achieving goals, the deficiency would be sloth, the excess would be greed, and the virtue would be ambition.

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The Aristotelian continuum of creepy-cool I’m alluding to.

The creepy-cool line is similar. On one end of the continuum is the creepy, on the other end is the useless, and between them—perhaps skewed towards the creepy end—is the cool. Here is an example using AI through which I hope to further illustrate my argument.

One of the hottest topics in tech right now is artificial intelligence. On the useless end of the spectrum is the under-developed AI that produces nonsensical and sometimes hilarious results. Other times, bad AI can be dangerous. In 2018, a Florida hospital tested an application of IBM Watson that allowed it to suggest cancer treatments given a patient’s data. A doctor involved in the testing claimed that Watson is “a piece of sh-t,” providing unsafe and incorrect treatment recommendations.

The above example represents the deficient end, but on the opposite end there’s the AI that’s too powerful and can be used maliciously. In one super-creepy example we discussed earlier in the semester, Stanford researchers used AI to develop an algorithm that was able to accurately predict sexual orientation in men 91% of the time by analyzing five photos. The same figure for women was 83%. This is the unsettling kind of AI that can easily be abused if it finds its way into the wrong hands.

Then, of course, there are the countless cool applications of artificial intelligence which many of us use on a pretty regular basis. Netflix uses AI to try to determine what shows you might like to watch next, so it can better tailor its experience to individual users. It’s not unlike the way Spotify uses AI to recommend new music and curate personalized playlists like Discover Weekly and Daily Mix. The tech that is almost certain to eventually make drivers obsolete is powered by AI. Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri could not be possible without artificial intelligence. These are all “cool” applications that have found a happy medium between artificial stupidity and creepy, robots-are-taking-over-the-world AI. The companies using these technologies must tread lightly as AI continues to improve, though, or they risk entering creepy territory.

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A guy on Twitter claimed to have forced a bot to watch 1,000 hours of Shark Tank before writing a script for the show. While this didn’t actually happen, it does a pretty good job of depicting what AI looks like (and how funny the result can be) when it’s wrong.

Although the creepy-cool golden mean depends heavily on the applications of an underlying technology, the overarching idea is the same: everything in moderation. If we rely too heavily on AI or we let it get too powerful, it can become dangerous and susceptible to malicious use. Moving forward, tech companies should strive for virtue over complexity. A lack of innovation leaves us prone to stagnation, but over-innovating (creating tech that is unnecessary and overcomplicated) is entirely possible and could drive us into the type of dystopian society depicted in Black Mirror. Instead, companies should aim to foster “cool” technologies that will drive us into the future.

10 comments

  1. Really interesting way of looking at the creepy -cool line Annie! I agree that there’s definitely excess in technology – We touched on this in the panel last week, but a digital strategy has to be intentional, not just using tech for tech’s sake. I think a lot of people miss that point,especially as you mentioned, when it comes to AI. The other end of the spectrum though, the black mirror future – terrifying !! Great post, and great contributions all semester !

  2. I loved reading this post simply because it was so different from all the other posts this week. What a cool way to summarize many of the topics we have touched upon time and time again throughout the semester. The AI/Shark Tank example is really funny, and something I had never seen before. I’d be really interested to see how this particular bot could be improved, and eventually produce a more accurate script. I definitely agree with you that the creepy-cool line depends immensely on how it is being used, and what the given underlying technology entails. I also liked how you brought up the concept of over-innovating, which is something that I feel like we talked about in class but a lot of people might not necessarily think of. There are definitely certain spaces where AI does not belong (at least for the time being).

  3. Nice wrapup! Although I enjoyed getting to know you on Tech Trek two years ago, I have appreciated your unique perspective and voice in this class even more (which is very much typified in this blog post). I’m glad you chose to take it, and I wish you all the best in the future!

  4. Great post, and an awesome way to put this all in perspective. That creepy cool line gauged against useful and useless is an excellent parallel we should all keep in mind going forward. Funny anecdote about that doctor thinking IBM Watson was a piece of shit. As an MBA student, I hope one day 10 or so years from now you will look back on this experience while in a grad program similar to how I did this term. Being in class with you younger whippersnappers has been a treat, and an experience I soon won’t forget.

  5. Loved the the comparison to Aristotle, it’s an interesting way to look at the way in which have seen technology creep into almost very part of our life. We can guessimate all the ways in which will evolve similarly to how the philosophers of his time tried to understand what may become of the world. The creepy cool line is something that most certainly been on the forefront of my mind when we first started talking about it, if there is anything I have learned this semester is to be hyper aware of it. Also by far my favorite episode of Black Mirror is the society run by social media. Great post!

  6. Gotta say as a previous Latin scholar I had never heard the term ARISTOTELIAN so I was really interested to see where you were going with your post! I love how you took our creepy/ cool concept and made it more academia driven with the comparison to the Golden Rule. Your article was a breath of fresh air as I believe the majority of us, myself included, took a self reflective approach at how the class affected us. Your article is a nice wrap up of where we stand and how we need to continue to look at the creepy cool line in tech, especially AI.

  7. I, like everyone else, applaud your use of Aristotle and drawing a parallel to the golden mean from the creepy-cool line. I’m a little surprised you didn’t go even more dystopian than Black Mirror, i.e. full-on Terminator or IRobot. I’ve got a lot of hope for AI to help humanity, whether that’s through medical diagnosis or reducing the workload for each of us, but I think there has to be some sort of popular control in place beforehand. Because I’ll be so angry if some plucky twenty-something invents some robot that inevitably leads to my demise in 40 years.

  8. Reading this post made me think about two Will Smith movies, iRobot and I am Legend. iRobot being what might happen if AI and technology in general isn’t created and used in the correct way, with I am Legend on the technology side being an aftermath of maybe taking advancements in medicine with the help of technology too far (to cure cancer) to a point where failure and infection is a possibility. I loved the Aristotle approach to the creep-cool line when in the context of our class. I posted on Twitter the other day a robot performing typical exercises that humans would. AI will no doubt help improve our lives over time, but we shouldn’t solely rely on technology, it also makes me think of the movie Wall-E. Great post and best of luck moving forward!

  9. As a philosophy minor, I absolutely loved this post. Would never have thought to compare Aristotle to tech, but I think the creepy-cool line comparison is fantastic! Aristotle would definitely think that it is the virtuous mean to be cool. I never thought about what the other end would be though. Useless seems about right!

  10. Great final post! I almost was a philosophy minor at BC so I love this post. Love how you brought Aristotle into this discussion. I never would have thought about the golden mean in that creepy/cool sense. Great call and great wrap up.

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