Pandora’s Box: the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

The first Artificial Intelligence ever created was Pandora, a creation of the Greek gods Hephaestus and Athena.  Pandora means both “all-gifted” and “all-giving” and was constructed with attributes from every other Olympian god. Pandora was created at the request of Zeus, the king of the gods, as a punishment for Prometheus stealing fire, the first disruptive technology, and handing it over to mankind.

Zeus punishes Prometheus, the proto god of technology and intelligence, for giving fire to mankind by chaining him to a rock, and he punishes mankind by giving them Pandora, the first A.I., who has been endowed with attributes from all of the gods. But how is this gift a punishment?

Pandora is a “mythical inversion”, a story explaining the origin of evil in the world, while celebrating technology as a divine gift. Zeus, the god of Order and Justice chains (the god of) technology to hold its disruptive powers in check, while delivering a gift of technology to mankind in the form of Pandora. This gift is also disruptive.

It is Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus who actually receives Pandora from Zeus and unleashes her “evil” on mankind. Epimetheus’s name means “Afterthought”. Forethought and Intelligence can give us the gifts of technology, but only Afterthought or Hindsight recognizes and learns the possible misuses of that technology -as Epimetheus learns after Pandora opens her box, leaving only Hope inside. The Greek ambiguity about technology as a gift/punishment reflects their idea that technology itself is morally neutral. Good or evil arises from the social norms and political economy in which the technology emerges and is used.

Zeus, the god of Justice, Order, and Balance, finally allows Prometheus to be freed by Heracles after his Twelve Labors. Heracles is Zeus’ son, and his name means “the Fame of Hera.” Hera is the queen of the gods and Zeus’ wife. If Zeus represents Justice, Hera represents Governance. If Zeus is the strategic vision of Justice, Order, and Balance in the Greek Weltanschauung, Hera represents the daily governing customs that are the foundations of that Order and Justice. In consulting terms, Zeus is the strategic plan, Hera is the governing methodology, and the Labors of Heracles are the implementation.

Once Heracles has done his work -that is, once the Fame of Hera is spread and the customs of the Zeus Principle have been implemented, then Prometheus, the god of technology, can be unchained. A balanced and just society had to be established where the technology of Prometheus and Pandora can be gifts, not curses.

The ancient wisdom reveals that a strong political and ethical framework must exist in a community’s daily habits -not just in theory- within which that technology can emerge. A political economy of Justice and Governance can incorporate and enable technology, can integrate both visionary Forethought (Prometheus), and critical Afterthought (Epimetheus). A merely theoretical Justice cannot do this without a methodology of implementation and governance. Governance without Theory cannot do this either, as there is no organizing principle. As the Latin epigram states: Laws without customs are empty and vain.  The corollary would be customs without laws are empty repetition.

The ethical issues surrounding emerging, disruptive technology and Artificial Intelligence are not merely the tactical uses of them, but the civilizational organizing principles and reinforcing social norms within which those technologies emerge and are used.

At the end of the Industrial Revolution, a period of massive technological disruption, Mary Shelley references Prometheus in the title of her famous book, Frankenstein, A Modern Prometheus. In seeking to create Artificial Life and Artificial Intelligence, Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster.  Frankenstein is a warning about technology unchained from the civilizational order and norms, but it is also a warning about the order and norms within which new technology was emerging.

As The New York Times says in its article about Peter Thiel:

He [Thiel] does think, though, that human violence is more of a risk than a pandemic or robot army. “It’s the people behind the red-eyed robots that you need to be scared of,” he says.

The ethics of Artificial Intelligence will not be a bolt-on software update, but will already be in the ethical operating system of the civilization out of which Artificial Intelligence emerges. The questions is, is the ethical operating system that our civilization has now a sufficient framework to allow A.I. to be a blessing and not a curse? Or have we already opened Pandora’s Box?  There is always Hope, but the emergence of A.I. may force us to re-engineer back to some lost or hazy ethical first principles to which Shelley and Hesiod have alluded.


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