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?
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.
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.
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.