Dec. 10, 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The human-rights movement with its moral, legal and organizational ramifications has been one of the great innovations of the 20thcentury. Much has been achieved, but the world continues to fall short of human-rights ideals in numerous ways. Now is also the time to look ahead to the next 70 years, an era likely marked by technological breakthroughs at an unprecedented scale. Artificial Intelligence is increasingly present in our lives, reflecting a growing tendency to turn for advice, or turn over decisions altogether, to algorithms. The effectiveness of algorithms is increasingly enhanced through Big Data: availability of an enormous amount of data on all human activity. The key idea behind human rights is that power be used in ways that protect and advance basic human interests, especially those of the most vulnerable, and that there is a global responsibility to make sure of this. New technology greatly helps with these goals, but there are also dangers. In the short term these dangers range from perpetuation of bias in algorithmic reasoning to use of technology to create “alternative facts.” In the longer term, we must worry about ownership of data, increasing power of tech companies, changes in the nature of work and perhaps eventually existential risk through advent of entities that are not alive in familiar ways but might be sentient and intellectually and even morally superior to humans. This conference explores ways in which technological change will affect human life, especially the rights designed to protect that life, in the next 70 years and beyond.
In the larger picture, this conference stands at the intersection of closely connected emerging agendas at the Carr Center and the EJ Safra Center, as well as at the intersection of broader interests around Harvard in benefits and challenges from technological breakthroughs and artificial intelligence in particular. Alongside other human-rights centers at Harvard, Carr responds to the UDHR’s anniversary by reflecting on the past, present and future of human rights. The bigger question behind that is how the institutional protection of the distinctively human life can be assured in an era of exploding technological innovation. EJ Safra seeks to explore how such innovation engages human values and a broad range of ethical issues that arise from our ways of using technology and perhaps eventually from sharing our lives with forms of technology that for now are merely imaginable. At stake is nothing less than the future of human life and its organizational possibilities, what that life will look like, and whether it might eventually be threatened at an existential level by its own innovations. Many initiatives are emerging in this domain at Harvard. It is time to bring them together and to make sure the ethical dimensions of these changes take center stage in Harvard’s agenda.
Conference Organizer: Mathias Risse, Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration
This conference is co-sponsored by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.