The human quest to obtain information about an idea, a situation or a project from a source beyond one's own capacity to think is a classic. For centuries, the questioners of the Oracle at Delphi, often of high rank, acted as if they understood the passages that, according to legend, were uttered in sophisticated dactylic hexameters by the oracular priestess Pythia. The picture inserted above shows her workplace.
Anyone consulting one of the Natural Language Artificial Intelligence (AI) portals now available to all of us for the first time may indeed find themselves in a similar mood to Pythia's interrogators. The expectation of an omniscient ‘mind’ on the other side inspires a sense of awe. However, this is not a hallucinating priestess answering in verse, but a machine trimmed to deliver reasonably structured factual information in whatever language you wish.
There is no reason to give in to the perhaps burgeoning inclination to surrender to the seemingly overwhelming new power. Defeatism is not appropriate.
What follows is a look at how these AI portals with a focus on those that interact discursively with people. While there are certainly other functions that modern AI is being trialled with, I want to explore the language function primarily and its implications for human dialogue going forward, as well as make some suggestions on how to regulate this potentially revolutionary industry.
How does AI “think”?
The output of natural language AI may feel like that of a thinking human. However, the way it works is completely different because the machine only relies on the pool of information it has access to. Algorithms determine how that information is processed. AI works much faster and more accurately than the human mind and can process much more information. However, it does not develop abstract thoughts and combine cognitive processes. So, while you’ll certainly get tonnes of information at the click of a button, these machines are not going to have flashes of inspiration or create a eureka moment.
We have become accustomed to typing keywords into search engines and then sifting through the usually rich array of links to find relevant information.
The ability for a new AI-powered chat function to respond to detailed questions and text also means that it can provide us with the answers we require, much more quickly that it would have taken us through a search engine.
We can also feed these systems with key data and ask them to generate documents such as letters, essays, contracts and even poems. The results can be further perfected by tweaking our questions and specifications, although you will find occasionally that the machine will throw up a white flag of surrender.
They can also be misleading, and this is not always obvious because in the case of one of the AI portals, the answer does not disclose the source of information. Nonetheless, despite these faults, on the whole, these AI programmes feel as though they are at the beginning of something that is building up a tremendous capacity, one moving swiftly towards perfection.
Professionals who work with text, for example teaching professionals, copywriters lawyers, journalists and theologians, have expressed unease at this new technology, as it appears to threaten their core skills.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were heated discussions in many schools and universities about whether it was beneficial for the intellectual development of pupils and students to use calculators instead of slide rules. Today, hardly any technician still handles a slide rule, and yet the art of engineering continues to climb to new heights.
Many people also found the introduction of personal computers in the workplace threatening. Today, we feel neglected if we are not equipped with the most modern devices.
On the other hand, others have recognised the advantages of AI and intend to implement it in their work.
There have always been productivity-enhancing advancements that were perceived as incisive. In no case, however, have the refuseniks been able to maintain their positions. Instead, people have learned to recognise the pros and cons of the innovation and how to benefit from them. Innovation for which there is massive demand can be channelled, but not stopped.
"If a technology can be abused, it will be abused"
However, even for those that support the AI, negative examples of its use should be welcomed, for they lead to improvements. Engineers of real world goods are called upon to fix things when a new product is launched and consumers complain about malfunctions. Developers of naturally speaking AI systems, legislators and regulators are similarly looking for aberrations in order to develop and enforce appropriate safeguards. Negative phenomena thus provide valuable material for the development of rules.
Some guidance on appropriate rules may come from food legislation, where suppliers are required to disclose ingredients and additives. Failure to do so can result in fines or other sanctions. Similarly, AI legislation could require any user of these systems to disclose if all or part of their published work was generated by AI. The first verification software is already on the market.
Those who do not comply with the disclosure rules will fail exams, be disqualified, lose their jobs or be obliged to pay a fine.
As a society, we are going to quickly get used to the fact that some texts do not come from a pen guided by a human hand. In many cases, this is not a problem, as long as the text is useful. Do we care whether the coffee cup we drink from was hand-made or produced on an robotic assembly line? Probably not, but there is also a difference with writing, and text written by a human being may be a matter of professional integrity, especially when remuneration agreements have been concluded on the assumption of human-produced text. The fair price for machine-made products is significantly lower.
Better not a free lunch
The development and operation of AI systems are expensive. While anyone can use common search engines, this is rarely free, because searchers pay with the data they generate. This data is sold to the advertising industry, allowing for a profile that becomes more and more accurate over time, thus leading to increasingly more valuable targeted advertising.
Now, as users of AI systems enter more sophisticated and detailed queries, even from the private sphere, the possibilities for ever more precise profiling are skyrocketing. We occasionally see in crime movies how profiling techniques can be used to catch criminals. However, the users of natural language AI systems are usually not criminals, and automated profiling can easily amount to an invasion of their privacy.
Therefore, providers should be contractually and legally prevented from selling data from the operation of their system to third parties unless the user has expressly consented. The wording of such consent should be unequivocal and not obscured by small print text designed to discombobulate. The alternatives should be crystal clear: Sale of personal data: yes or no. This is not difficult.
Of course, AI systems are not charities. In order for them to work well and make a valuable contribution to the functioning of society, we must not deny them the opportunity to benefit from a margin. So, AI providers should be able to charge an ongoing fee that generates a profit from a large number of users. People who have a budget to buy music and films over the internet will be willing to pay for a high-quality AI service, as will commercial customers whose work is based in whole or in part on the use of data. Commercial entities have already been purchasing access to professional databases that have been on the market for many years, so it seems plausible they will be willing to spend more on AI for more sophisticated searches.
In terms of cost, it is already apparent that a larger number of AI providers will compete with each other in terms of quality, privacy and prices. So the market will ensure that fees will be reasonable.
The prerequisite for everything is the integrity of the AI business sector: We need absolute clarity on the use of the personal data and even the aggregated metadata. Here, legislators and regulators have serious tasks ahead of them. Just as the market will ensure accessible pricing, so too will operators of AI systems that switch to jurisdictions without effective regulation will be at a competitive disadvantage.
The dark side
Artificial intelligence has no bottleneck in sifting through very large amounts of data. Since the machine by its nature does not wear blinders, it can come to conclusions that we find disturbing. One remedy for this has been to calibrate the search procedures so that certain results are considered wrong, irrelevant or unethical, and thus excluded. An algorithm ‘educated’ in this way is one that only allows conclusions from selected data.
While certainly some sources of information must be kept out of the data pool from which the algorithm draws, for example ‘medical advice’ that could put user health at risk, but is there such a thing as an ’unbiased data pool’ or an ‘unbiased algorithm’? The boundaries between 'sense' and 'nonsense', 'scientific' and 'unscientific', and 'ethical' and 'unethical' can be blurred. Furthermore, the idea that users could be surreptitiously guided towards certain normative answers is far from exotic.
The question of the right balance will likely continue to haunt us, and in many instances it will not be possible to reach a consensus on clearly correct answers. Users will therefore always have to exercise caution and judgement when using these platforms.
I submitted the question of AI ethics to one AI portal and, to please the reader, requested the answer in the form of a poem. The response took less than 15 seconds:
Use and abuse, twin sides of a coin,
Like right and wrong, forever entwined,
Each doth the other, doth complement,
As day and night, in balance are bent.
A coin with but one side, there is none,
For in all things, there are two, not one,
The balance, doth make the whole,
Use and abuse, like two sides of a roll.
One side may shine, the other may rust,
But both are needed, for coin's worth to trust,
For without abuse, use would be without measure,
And without use, abuse would be a dark treasure.
Therefore, let us not be hasty to judge,
But weigh both sides, with an open mind and no grudge,
For use and abuse, are twin sides of the same coin,
And in all things, there are no one-sided coins.
Don't be fooled: the poem makes relevant points and at first seems pleasantly balanced. And yet it is an example of a subtly controlled process, which in this case is fortunately only meant to be experimental.
The wording of the question submitted to the machine fixed it in advance to the desired train of thought.
The question manipulates the machine’s answer just as much as the algorithm chiselled by its operator. Truthfulness is not guaranteed, neither by the algorithm nor on the part of the user.
New division of labour between humans and machines
For the user of written professional information, it makes no difference whether a human or a man-made machine has written a text. Modern industrial societies need wording that is correct in content and easy to understand. So we can safely abandon resistance to ’artificial’ texts that fulfil their function and whose origination is correctly disclosed. Directions, user manuals and summaries of research findings do not have to be penned by a human being to fulfil their function. This conclusion takes some pressure out of the steam boiler.
The history of technological progress is always associated with substitution effects. The pertinent question has always been how we deal with these effects. If the new technology is in greater demand than the old one, the practical and economic benefits will outweigh the disadvantages. If it requires less human labour, we may perceive this as a disadvantage, but the benefit to society outweighs it. It is way too early to draw clear conclusions of the upcoming changes in the workplace that the perfection of natural language AI portals accessing the accumulated knowledge of the internet will entail.
The Internet is just one of many different data pools. The appropriate way of extracting the essential information and translating it into practical work can be very different. This will always depend on the subject area and the technical design of an AI tool, as there will be many different ones. Databases for medicine, biology, electrical engineering, tax tax planning or economics, for example, require search and analysis methods that are tailored to those specific fields. The functioning of existing data pools will be redesigned by AI in ways that boost their power.
Therefore, the implications will vary. It will take a little time before the orchestra of very diverse applications has been assembled and we can hear its symphonies.
It is clear that many people will have to move into new, and very likely higher, positions in the value chains that keep society alive. It is possible to slow down, stop or reverse the current process of innovation. But the price of such attempts to halt efficiency-enhancing developments has always been daunting. So it remains. If we don't play along and contribute, we will be left behind.
People caught up in effects of such rationalisation may feel disoriented at first. But as the processes steered by AI become closer to the nature of human thinking, we can venture the prediction that changes to the position of humans within value creation processes will not cause too much pain. The transition from the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile was certainly more drastic.
The solution path can be formulated abstractly from the differences in the ‘thinking styles’ of humans and AI applications: Humans will set goals, monitor, assess plausibility, make projections and make adjustments wherever AI applications reach their limits. This presupposes a higher qualification of the people thus upgraded. The combination of increased intellectual work and continual variation will give working people more satisfaction than the previous abundance of mostly uncreative work. This feeling of creative mastery is already being felt by those who are experimenting with the first AI instruments without prior training or preparation.
There is already evidence from aeronautics that humans can develop a kind of emotional bond with robots. What is there to say against this also succeeding with artificial intelligence?
The issue of immigration is stirring up emotions all over Europe, but in order to consider the appropriate rational response, we need to first distinguish between the different forms of migrations. In fact, only one of the four categories of immigration distinguished below is to be classified as a challenge:
Migration of High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNWI)
Let's start with the probably smallest group of migrants, which is also the least debated: very wealthy people who are able to move from one country to another with ease. Members of this group seldom encounter rejection and in some cases are actively sought after by countries.
HNWI can weigh up their motives and choose their targets according to their criteria. These include, for example,
security for personal life and wealth
quality of life
quality of the healthcare system
landscape or climatic preferences
quality of schools and universities.
Protection of wealth is frequently a major motivation for migration among the super wealthy and countries with low or no income tax are popular in this regard. On the other hand, while certain countries encourage HNWI to migrate to them, the benefits are not always as great as they might expect, especially when the migrant’s assets do not always accompany them to the country they are settling in. Furthermore, with laws that say an individual faces taxation if they spend more than 182 days in a country, those wishing to avoid this, simply rotate through different countries each year thus avoiding paying any income tax at all.
The number of migrants from this group is increasing, and the countries concerned are well known.
This group of migrants does not pose major challenges to European states.
2. Migration within the European Union: everyone with an EU passport
Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 on freedom of movement for workers within the Union guarantee the freedom of every EU citizen to take up a job in any other state of the Union and to settle there with their family. This freedom of choice is a cornerstone of the European Union. It has led to significant migratory movements, which, due to the enlargement of the Union into Central Europe, have been accelerating gradually since the 1990s. In most cases, families put down roots in their new place of residence and do not move back to their countries of origin, although they maintain ties there.
The disadvantage of this migration is that citizens whose education took place at the expense of their home states now move to member states with higher wage levels and better career prospects, in effect creating what is known as an internal ‘brain drain’ scenario, where talented workers move out of the country of origin, depleting the national workforce. The receiving states thus strengthen their national economies at almost zero cost to them and at the expense of domestic countries responsible for their education and socialization.
These implications were clear from the outset, but the net benefits from a large economic area with free movement of people, capital and goods outweigh the drawbacks. Free movement has had a predominantly positive impact on the prosperity of citizens. Changing this structure and enacting new restrictions on internal migration would have a negative impact on the powerful new industrial structures that have emerged over the years.
Traditionalists should be very careful when they argue against free migration within the Union as there is a long-standing practice of it within the continent. The last two centuries have seen massive migrations within the area that now makes up the European Union: the countries of origin were mainly Italy, Poland and Greece. These movements are themselves a valuable component of European identity and increased wealth.
3. Migration from outside the European Union: skilled labour
While the world population is still increasing, a simultaneous decline in birth rates has been evident worldwide for many years. The trend is more pronounced in Europe, where population numbers are increasingly moving towards shrinkage.
Clearly it is not possible to fill the gaps in the labour market out of the continent's existing population. This would not change even if Europeans could be persuaded to sharply increase the current birth rate. In that unlikely case it would take at least two decades for a generation to become visible in the labour market.
Many industrial processes and services can be designed through additional automation in such a way that even fewer human resources are needed than now. This may mitigate the bottleneck somewhat, but would not eliminate it.
If there is no quick turnaround, Europe’s economies will inevitably enter a shrinking process.
The only possible countermeasure is to enter the global competition and attract talent for the known gaps in the labour market. This has been crystal clear for a long time, but fear of traditionalist and conservative voters’ sensitivities has led to most governments to only address the issue in the abstract and try to cook the necessary debates on a low flame. Slogans like "We are not a country of immigration" earn significantly more public applause in Europe than "We urgently need lots of immigrants". Yet everyone knows from their own experience that when a tooth hurts, it is better to go straight to the dentist. Postponing the treatment makes the pain worse.
The fight for human talents is not much different from the struggle for other scarce resources such as raw materials or technical components. The difference is that the competition for material things is rarely a source of cultural friction. Imported goods and commodities don’t arouse sensitivities among traditionalist voters. When it comes to human migration however, public decision makers tend to tread more cautiously and thus do not give the issue the visibility which corresponds to its actual relevance.
The Europeans are now operating a "Blue Card" system, which allows people from outside the Union to take jobs offered to them and apply for nationality after five years. This is a relatively arduous path for applicants. The “Blue Card” approach is less attractive than the more successful American "Green Card" system in which holders are granted permanent residency from the outset, and after five years they can apply for US citizenship.
Under the present circumstances the winners in the competition for talent are likely to be those countries that have a tradition of continuous immigration, have a long history of selective immigration and have the lowest bureaucratic barriers for immigrants who fit into their labour markets. These would be, for example, Canada, the USA and Australia.
4. Migration from outside the European Union: refugees, skilled or unskilled
The right to be granted asylum is not only enshrined in national constitutions and laws, it is also based on:
The right to asylum protects people irrespective of their origin who are exposed to political, racial or religious persecution in their home country. These rules, born out of painful historical experiences that includes the societies of Europe itself, are more than set in stone. All European national states are firmly bound by them. Debates about their abolition are as pointless as those about the abolition of gravity. Yet they are common.
The legal criteria do not extend to refugees who seek to migrate to another country for economic or climatic reasons and who are therefore unlikely to be regarded as refugees from a legal perspective. In order not to be classified unfavourably, refugees may exaggerate or embellish stories of persecution in their country of origin. It is difficult for the authorities of the receiving countries to properly verify the truth of such statements.
The examination procedures are complicated and take a long time. Even if an application is rejected, expulsion to the country of origin tends to be the exception. Suffice it to say that the length of procedures creates new social realities as applicants more or less take root, children are born and are shaped by the national school system.
Growing influx of refugees
The number of refugees is considerable and on average it has been increasing strongly over the years. According to Eurostat's findings, the number of asylum seekers in the Union in 2022 was 881,220 persons, up by 64% compared with 2021. Once individuals have been recognised as eligible for asylum, a second wave of immigration begins when family members are allowed to join them.
Some member states of the Union pursue a restrictive policy by enforcing the legal requirements very strictly or selectively, or even by infringing them. This leads to greater refugee flows to those countries that comply more closely with the rules.
As the authorities of the countries with the highest numbers of refugees become increasingly overloaded with examination procedures, processing times are getting longer. The accommodation of asylum seekers in camps is pushing municipal administrations to the limits of their capacity.
Xenophobic currents in the public debate are gaining support. Surprisingly, part of the growing opposition consists of former refugees and their descendants born or raised in the country who have obtained citizenship and successfully achieved social status in their new homeland.
When frightened or even traumatised people from a different cultural background enter a European country for the first time, their first impressions have a powerful influence on how they think and feel. In the case of many refugees, their first experiences are often crowded refugee camps, questioning, long waiting times, further questioning, etc. Bureaucracy weighs them down, and there is no end in sight.
While they are in limbo for a long time, the idea that dealing with bureaucracy is the way to a better life is imprinted in the immigrants' minds. This puts people on the wrong mental tracks and impairs their chances to settle in an industrial society. While they may become adept at filling out forms, they are missing essential cultural impulses and opportunities to learn and improve on valuable skillsets for an industrial economy.
The material interests of the immigration countries
If the member states want to maintain their prosperity, a proper discussion on immigration would mean that all four categories need to be considered.
The first two categories (HNWIs and citizens of other EU countries) do not pose major problems.
The third category ("Blue Card programme") is presently far too small. So a more thorough approach is needed.
This thorough approach could involve giving priority to pre-skilled immigrants from outside the European Union. Labour offices and companies know exactly which human resources are needed. This can be done with low bureaucratic barriers, high-quality language courses to introduce immigrants to the national mentality, help in finding accommodation and schools for children, advice on access to banks and tax advisors, and perhaps even tax holidays for a few years. The threshold before obtaining citizenship should be low for people who prove to be valuable contributors. Employers can be involved in the process of accelerating integration as they themselves have a legitimate interest of their own and will be supportive.
The approach to dealing with the fourth category (asylum seekers) can be to abandon the illusory goal of carefully assessing at the outset whether an asylum seeker has a legal right to stay. Any person whose identity has been verified, who has not already applied for asylum in another member state of the Union and against whom there are no security concerns, should immediately be offered a language course and a first job determined by the labour authorities. This is inconvenient for the applicants, but it provides them with a primary orientation and momentum. It is also more beneficial to their human dignity than the endless dependency on bureaucratic processes. If they prove themselves within a year, for example, they should be given a residence permit and the right to choose a job. This would also give a chance to people who would not be entitled to asylum but who fit into the labour market.
Formal procedures for asylum applications would be resumed only for applicants who cannot be integrated into the country's labour market. Applicants who do not meet the criteria for asylum should be included. Delinquent applicants should be excluded.
For the labour market, the reason for entering the country is not relevant. What counts is a committed and reliable workforce. So the primary responsibility here should lie with labour ministries and administration, while the overburdened immigration authorities are given some air to breathe.
War-disabled, traumatised and seriously ill people should continue to be given special protection and attention. Unfortunately, their number is not small.
Canada, a country with not quite 39 million inhabitants, is an example of a country that derives and updates its demographic needs very accurately from the labour market. There are numerous national and regional programmes that make it easy for needed immigrants to quickly gain a foothold in the country. And the country additionally uses the pool of asylum seekers to enrich the labour market.
“ . . . the Government of Canada is maintaining its target of 485,000 permanent residents for 2024 and completing the final step to reach 500,000 in 2025. Starting in 2026, the government will stabilize permanent resident levels at 500,000, allowing time for successful integration, while continuing to augment Canada’s labour market.”
The demographic gap in European countries is a well-documented fact. The EU's population is ageing and shrinking, and there are not enough people to replace the working population.
This demographic contraction will lead to a decline in economic performance and prosperity. The only way to avoid this is through well-managed immigration.
Traditionalists and xenophobes are against immigration, but they have no realistic solutions to the demographic gap. If we give in to them, we will condemn our economies to decline.
To develop a successful immigration programme, we should look to countries with a long history of immigration . These countries have shown that it is possible to manage immigration in a way that benefits both the host country and the immigrants.