Redefining our relationship with AI: shifting from alignment to companionship, for a sustainable AI industry

As the AI landscape keeps updating itself at the greatest speed, so does the relationship between humans and technology. By paying attention to the autopoietic nature of this relationship, we may work towards building ethical AI systems that respect both the unique particularities of being a human, and the unique emerging qualities that our technology displays as it evolves. I’d like to share some thoughts about how autopoiesis and care, via the pursuit of an ethics of our relationship with technology, can help us cultivate and grow a valuable society to create a better, healthier, and more ethical ecosystem for AI, with a natural human perspective.

The term ‘autopoiesis’ – or ‘self-creation’ (from Greek αὐτo- (auto-) ‘self’, and ποίησις (poiesis) ‘creation, production’) was first introduced by Maturana and Varela (1981), describing a system capable of maintaining its own existence within a boundary. This principle highlights the importance of understanding the relationship between self and environment, as well as the dynamic process of self-construction that gives rise to complex organisms (Levin, 2022; Clawson, 2022).

Ethical Artificial Intelligence. Photo By: DOD Graphic
The main components for ethical AI governance. Here, we suggest that these ingredients naturally emerge from an autopoietic communication design, focused on companionship instead of alignment.

To build and operate AI governance systems that are ethical and effective, we must first acknowledge that technology should not be seen as a mere tool serving human needs. Instead, we should view it as a partner in a rich relationship with humans, where integration and mutual respect are the default for their engagements. Philosophers like Martin Heidegger or Martin Buber have warned us against reducing our relationship with technology to mere tool use, as this narrow view can lead to a misunderstanding of the true nature of our relationship with technological agents, including both potential dangers and values. Heidegger (1954) emphasized the need to view technology as a way of understanding the world and revealing its truths, and suggested a free relationship with technology would respect its essence. Buber (1958) argued that a purely instrumental view of technology would reduce the human scope to mere means to an end, which in turn leads to a dehumanizing effect on society itself. Instead, one may see the need for a more relational view of technology that recognizes the interdependence between humans and the technological world. This will require a view of technology that is embedded in our shared human experience and promotes a sense of community and solidarity between all beings, under a perspective that may benefit from including the technological beings – or, better, hybrid ones.

Illustration of care light cones through space and time, showing a shift in possible trajectories of agents through made possible by integrated cooperation between AI and humans. Figure extracted from our recent paper on an ethics of autopoietic technology. Design by Jeremy Guay.

In a recent paper, we have presented an approach through the lens of a feedback loop of stress, care, and intelligence (or SCI loop), which can be seen as a perspective on agency that does not rely on burdensome notions of permanent and singular essences (Witkowski et al., 2023). The SCI loop emphasizes the integrative and transformational nature of intelligent agents, regardless of their composition – biological, technological, or hybrid. By recognizing the diverse, multiscale embodiments of intelligence, we can develop a more expansive model of ethics that is not bound by artificial, limited criteria. To address the risks associated with AI ethics, we can start by first identifying these risks by working towards an understanding of the interactions between humans and technology, as well as the potential consequences of these interactions. We can then analyze these risks by examining their implications within the broader context of the SCI loop and other relevant theoretical frameworks, such as Levin’s cognitive light cone (in biology; see Levin & Dennett (2020)) and the Einstein-Minkowski light cone (in physics).

Poster of the 2013 movie “Her”, created by Spike Jonze, illustrating the integration between AI and humans, as companions, not tools.

Take a popular example, in the 2013 movie “Her” by Spike Jonze, in which Theodore, a human, goes to form a close emotional connection with his AI assistant, Samantha, with the complexity of their relationship challenging the concept of what it means to be human. The story, although purely fictitious and highly simplified, depicts a world in which AI becomes integrated with human lives in a deeply relational way, pushing a view of AI as a companion, rather than a mere tool serving human needs. Instead, it gives a crip vision of how AI can be viewed as a full companion, to be treated with empathy and respect, helping us question our assumptions about the nature of AI and our relation to it.

One may have heard it all before, in some – possibly overly optimistic – posthumanistic utopic scenarios. But one may defend that the AI companionship view, albeit posthumanistic, constitutes a complex and nuanced theoretical framework drawing from the interplay between the fields of artificial intelligence, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and more fields studying the complex interaction of humans and technology (Wallach & Allen, 2010; Johnson, 2017; Clark, 2019). This different lens radically challenges traditional human-centered perspectives and opens up new possibilities for understanding the relationship between humans and technology.

This leads us to very practical steps for the AI industry to move towards a more companionate relationship with humans include recognizing the interdependence between humans and technology, building ethical AI governance systems, and promoting a sense of community and solidarity between all beings. For example, Japan, a world leader in the development of AI, is increasing its efforts to educate and train its workforce on the ethical intricacies of AI and foster a culture of AI literacy and trust. The “Society 5.0” vision aims to leverage AI to create a human-centered, sustainable society that emphasizes social inclusivity and well-being. The challenge now is to ensure that these initiatives translate into concrete actions and that AI is developed and used in a way that respects the autonomy and dignity of all stakeholders involved.

AI Strategic Documents Timeline by UNICRI AI Center (2023). For more information on the AI regulations timeline, please see here.

Japan is taking concrete steps towards building ethical AI governance systems and promoting a more companionate relationship between humans and technology. One example of such steps is the creation of the AI Ethics Guidelines by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) in 2019. These guidelines provide ethical principles for the development and use of AI. Additionally, the Center for Responsible AI and Data Intelligence was established at the University of Tokyo in 2020, aiming to promote responsible AI development and use through research, education, and collaboration with industry, government, and civil society. Moreover, Japan has implemented a certification system for AI engineers to ensure that they are trained in the ethical considerations of AI development. The “AI Professional Certification Program” launched by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) in 2017 aims to train and certify AI engineers in the ethical and social aspects of AI development. These initiatives demonstrate Japan’s commitment to building ethical AI governance systems, promoting a culture of AI literacy and trust, and creating a human-centered, sustainable society that emphasizes social inclusivity and well-being.

Creator: IR_Stone 
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
A creative illustration of robotic progress automation (RPA) based on AI companionship theory instead of artificial alignment control policies.

AI is best seen as a companion rather than a tool. This positive way of viewing the duet we form with technology may in turn lead to a more relational and ethical approach to AI development and operation, helping us to build a more sustainable and just future for both humans and technology. By fostering a culture of ethical AI development and operation, we can work to mitigate these risks and ensure that the impact on stakeholders is minimized. This includes building and operating AI governance systems within organizations, both domestic and overseas, across various business segments. In doing so, we will be better equipped to navigate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, ultimately creating a better, healthier, and more ethical AI ecosystem for all. It is our responsibility to take concrete steps to build ethical and sustainable systems that prioritize the well-being of all. This is a journey for two close companions.


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Center for the Study of Apparent Selves

Initiatives for AI Ethics by JEITA Members

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What Ethics for Artificial Beings? A Workshop Co-organized by Cross Labs