A new wave of AI hype is raising productivity expectations among economists, driving up tech stock prices, and reigniting familiar fears of mass unemployment due to automation. Many questions that once appeared theoretical now hold tangible practical relevance. The intimate connoisseur of the AI scene and Oxford professor Nick Boström recently explained in a Handelsblatt interview:

“When do you think artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence? – I don’t have a specific year in mind, there are too many and too uncertain factors. However, I believe there is a significant chance that we will experience this in the relatively near future. When I wrote “Superintelligence” in 2014, I did not expect the development to advance so rapidly.”

Humankind has long considered itself the “crown of creation,” attributing a special status over the animal kingdom due to its intelligence. How is the perception of humanity and the human condition changing in light of the increasingly powerful environmental intelligence? And: How do experts on the AI scene assess the actual threat potential of AI – for employment, for political stability and humanity itself?

Humans Versus AI – The Evolving Image of Humanity

A cognitive model of human self-description is widely adopted, where a person’s value is based on their intellectual capacity. This can be attributed to the significance of work in shaping our self-image, as well as having religious roots in Christian cultures. For example, the theologian, philosopher and entrepreneur Prof. Dr. Ulrich Hemel writes in an article: “The likeness to God from Genesis 1:26 was long perceived as the human capacity for reason (compare H. Schilling 1961).”

In the same train of thought Professor Hemel points out the challenge that arises with the growing cognitive performance of artificial intelligence, namely: “Not least developments in AI now show that such an image of humanity is reaching its limits. If reason were really the salient quality of man, then man loses his privileged significance in the cosmos precisely when higher forms of reason appear.”

If the cognitive world model is the starting point for the image of the human being, it is not far to the thesis of the “deficit model”. This means that, from a functional standpoint, people fall short compared to computers and well-programmed, self-learning applications. For instance, humans get tired, lose interest, lack concentration, and have several other limitations. A warehouse or production robot, on the other hand, does not need sleep, does not seek or find distractions and always functions without complaint. (…) To put it bluntly, people are computers, only worse ones.

Anyone who understands people as “deficient” in this view will soon find solutions to remedy a (supposed) deficit. This tradition includes Transhumanism, the mechanization of humans (cyborgization) and post-humanism.

In his book, philosopher and bestselling author Richard David Precht takes on the narrative of humans as cognitive champions of evolutionary history – that is, in his book “Artificial Intelligence and the Meaning of Life” (Original title in German: “Künstliche Intelligenz und der Sinn des Lebens”) – and de-constructs it: He states that the human being is not driven by his inner nature to gain more and more knowledge and to achieve ever higher intelligence achievements. The ability to solve human problems would therefore not be geared towards more and more knowledge, but towards orienting oneself in a complex (social) environment, feeling comfortable. Precht comments mockingly: “In fact, the species Homo sapiens has not been driven by a higher urge, continuously developing to ever greater intelligence achievements. Most members of the species are inspired by clearly different motives. And the number of those whose intelligence inspires them to peak performance is manageable. Many representatives of the species prefer to watch football matches, take a swim in the warm sea, drink beer, read crime novels and take selfies incessantly instead of increasing their intelligence excessively. The urge to become posthuman is only noticeable in very few people, and there is no trace of an inner human need.” (p. 96).

To overcome feelings of cognitive inferiority, various alternative world models of human self-description are available. First of all, artificial intelligence can be seen as a pure tool (developed by humans). To put this differently: If we know that cars can drive faster than humans can run, then we can also get used to the fact that digital applications can calculate better and perform better cognitively than we humans. This forms the foundation for a mindset that emphasizes “duet” over “duel.” Incidentally, I borrowed this catchy phrase from SAP CEO Christian Klein..

The theologian and entrepreneur Hemel also refers to other traditions in Christianity: “After all, Christianity attaches great importance to the fact that God is love. If this is so, then God cannot be reduced to the thought of the highest reason alone.” In this way, human emotionality gains significance for our self-image, particularly in contrast to machines. It may be true, that – according to the latest state of development – the latter can understand emotions quite; but machines do not have emotions themselves, and will probably not develop them due to a lack of corporeality.

What everyone can easily understand, by the way, is that human activity is not fundamentally geared towards Olympic success. Nor are people known to have stopped playing chess, checkers, Go or Halma… even if it is clear that no human will ever again beat the (most powerful) AI in these disciplines. For the “homo ludens,” this is not a determining factor.

The advertising clip of a beer brand in 2019 got to the heart of the relationship between pleasure and performance. The advertising clip (YouTube, 30 sec) is highly worth seeing and entertaining:

To wrap up the topic: Of course, it would be an oversimplification to describe humans merely as seekers of moments of happiness and pleasure. The philosopher Precht has instead identified a very decisive human condition: People are storytellers in their self-relationship and thus dependent on stories. People are interested in a meaningful story for their own life – it’s not only about achieving happiness. And certainly not simply about a hedonistic, fleeting happiness of the moment. Precht also uses the example of parenthood: According to a well-known study by social psychology, children cause parents more worry than happiness. But that’s not the point (alone). Children provide meaning and significance, which is crucial.”

AI: The potential threat to jobs, political stability and human existence

First of all: The AI community is divided on whether AI poses a threat to humanity or not. Nick Bostrom, Geoffrey Hinton or Yoshua Bengio are rather pessimistic, while Meta’s Chief AI scientist Yann LeCun does not share these concerns. And while the Oxford economist Carl Benedikt Frey warns of mass unemployment, others downplay such a dire scenario.

The Oxford economist Frey caused quite a stir almost exactly 10 years ago with his publication THE FUTURE OF EMPLOYMENT: HOW SUSCEPTIBLE ARE JOBS TO COMPUTERISATION? (Download: HERE). In his study he examined around 700 job profiles and came to the conclusion that 47 percent of jobs can or could be automated in the foreseeable future. At the time, this study triggered a wave of similar studies by various institutions, consulting firms and associations. And the discussion has returned with full force. The consulting firm McKinsey reached a similar conclusion in a recent study, estimating that around 50% of today’s activities can or could be automated by 2045. If you follow the media, you will certainly have come across reports about companies that are planning to shrink their workforce through automation (Axel Springer, IBM, British Telecom).

This discussion about the potential for automation in Germany is, of course, set against the shortage of skilled labour, as well as the challenges posed by an ageing society and the associated demographic shrinkage of the pool of workers. Any forecast of the labour market (in Germany) is therefore challenging. Concerns about mass unemployment are contrasted with an optimistic view of an AI-fueled future, which tech investor Marc Andreesen sums up as follows (essay: Why AI Will Save the World, June 2023): “(…) technology empowers people to be more productive. This causes the prices for existing goods and services to fall, and for wages to rise. This in turn causes economic growth and job growth, while motivating the creation of new jobs and new industries. In short, no. AI is likely going to increase productivity by automating certain tasks, while allowing us to pursue newer ones.”

Historian and bestselling author Yuval Harari introduces another potential threat to the AI discourse. He notes: On the one hand, AI can now create intimacy with people, with hundreds of millions of people. If there is a “personal (AI) assistant” in the future, then it will exert an enormous influence on purchasing decisions and political views. On the other hand, AI is at a point where the cultural artifacts of societies are opened up by AI through access to language and imagery, such as religion or the legal system. The worst-case scenario that Harari paints looks like this: “AI takes over culture. (…) AI could eat the whole of human culture, digest it and start gushing out a new flood of cultural creations. (…) And remember, we humans have never direct access to reality, we are always cocooned by culture and we always experience reality through a cultural prism.”.

Harari explains this in a very interesting lecture entitled AI and the future of humanity (YouTube, English, 40 min):

And what does the exponential development of AI mean for political stability and humanity itself? A few years ago, Elon Musk among others, warned of a Third World War, fought with AI-controlled weapon systems. And Tech Investor Andreesen points out that super-intelligence can become a critical threat in the hands of autocratic powers: “China has a vastly different vision for AI than we do – they view it as a mechanism for authoritarian population control, full stop. The single greatest risk of AI is that China wins global AI dominance and we – the United States and the West – do not.”

It is logical that leading AI entrepreneurs are pushing for a regulatory framework. For example, Sam Altman, co-founder of Open AI, has called for a global control body for AI. At the recent G7 summit, the heads of state and government gathered in Hiroshima declared their intention to jointly establish rules for the development of AI in the future. A ministerial format was specially established for this purpose. “Hiroshima AI Process”

We don’t need to worry about a “Terminator scenario,” an apocalyptic battle between humans and machines as suggested by the Hollywood blockbuster of the same name by James Cameron. Richard David Precht on such a scenario: “Why would an AI that is infinitely intelligent necessarily want to expand? Unlike biological organisms, it does not need to eat and does not need a larger habitat.” (“Künstliche Intelligenz und der Sinn des Lebens”, p. 120). And he complements this argument by pointing out that evolution first produced drives and impulses of the will; higher awareness and planning intelligence, on the other hand, were added later. The instinct of self-preservation is anchored in the drives and impulses of the will – not in the planning intelligence. It is therefore doubtful how machine intelligence should develop into a will, drives or even a desire for power.

Precht also dampens expectations that some kind of super-intelligence could solve all our problems. After all, what good is this solution of a superintelligence if rulers like Trump and Bolsonaro follow a completely different logic of power and money regardless of such a proposed solution?

I created the teaser image using Midjourney.ai; with the following prompt: “Attractive woman dancing with an AI robot, 8k, ultrarealistic, silver orange green colours”


The author is a manager in the software industry with international expertise: Authorized officer at one of the large consulting firms - Responsible for setting up an IT development center at the Bangalore offshore location - Director M&A at a software company in Berlin.