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Great philosophers for big questions. Back from a research period in the Netherlands.

Series on AI in beekeeping, episode 3


As strange as it may sound, ‘old’ philosophical dilemmas can play a crucial role in clarifying the issues emerging with the development of new technologies. They can shed light on new questions, establish their relationships with the R&D process, and foster their investigation, regardless of how complex they may seem. In the context of this series of articles, this involves examining the relationships between privileging, in the development of new technologies, a ‘nature’ understood as our garden, park or agricultural field, or rather the global nature, the biosphere and environmental sustainability. For instance, training an AI model to produce an increasingly precise algorithm generates a significant amount of CO2, but it also enables us to monitor a colony of bees while biomonitoring the local ecosystem. So, which should we prioritize, improving AI’s sustainability or an AI-based system for sustainability? As we will see in the next few paragraphs, the great philosophers of the past are being ‘consulted’ in advanced technological universities to define and clarify similar challenges, also by developing detailed frameworks to cope with them – even if the ultimate answer may remain in the innovator’s responsible choice. I have experienced all this first-hand over the past few months.

At the beginning of May, I completed a research period at Wageningen University and Research (NL) under the supervision of Pr Vincent Blok. This period provided me with the unique opportunity to engage with PhD candidates and post-docs who are exploring issues close to mine. I was a guest in the philosophy group dedicated to researching the profound ethical and social implications of technologies developed by the technical university. The latter is among the world’s leaders in research on agriculture 4.0 and is located at the center of the so-called ‘Food Valley’, a network of international public and private research centers on the future of food production. And, in the midst of all this, there is a philosophical research group that reads Heidegger, Arendt, and Derrida (among others), i.e. great thinkers of the last century who investigated abstract questions such as “What means to be humans?”, or “How does Technology affect our being-in-the-world?”

But here, the question that comes to mind is rather: What role does a philosophical research group play within a technical university such as this? How do philosophical considerations of bygone thinkers, more or less of an ethical nature, link up with the technological development of a new type of agriculture for sustainable production?

During my two-and-a-half-month stay, I was able to address this question, even in its less radical form, which is how, ‘practically’, the writings of past philosophers can be utilized to create a framework applicable in an R&D context. In fact, over the years the philosophy group at Wageningen has developed several frameworks for assessing and implementing responsibility in innovation, starting from those ‘big’ questions that the great philosophers never shied away from. By attempting to answer these dilemmas, albeit never definitively, many of them have unearthed perspectives that enable us to scrutinize the desired direction more closely by redefining the problem. Building on this, some of this research has led to boil down the comparison between these dilemmas and past thinkers in frameworks that illuminate the work of public laboratories and private companies. This paves the way to ‘Responsible Innovation’, a paradigm that has taken strong roots in the Netherlands over the past decades. Ultimately, in fact, responsible innovation is about asking questions, particularly about one’s own responsibility, as a company, towards employees, the local area, or future generations. And if the answer were already given, where would the responsibility for the choice lie?