Science Fiction Enriches Ethical Discourse

Science fiction in literature and film can offer us insights into ethics for the post-human age, says Johann Roduit. On the occasion of the 50th birthday of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the UZH ethicist has launched a series of events.

Johann Roduit

Johann Roduit
Johann Roduit
Exploring the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence – 50 years ago: Scene from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Picture: Copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1974)


It is clear from just one scene in the movie: HAL, the supercomputer on board the spaceship, can lip-read. So it’s no use the astronauts shut themselves off in a soundproof capsule to discuss whether they should turn HAL off following a malfunction. HAL knows about their plan – with deadly consequences.

Fifty years on, and the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence as portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey is receiving more and more attention in the media. The question that is always asked is: Will artificial intelligence turn against us humans one day? Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk warned about the destructive power of artificial intelligence, saying it could even spark a third world war. Artificial intelligence must be legally regulated before it is too late, according to Musk.

Threat or opportunity?

Artificial intelligence confronts us with questions that are fundamental – and fundamentally new. Science fiction in film and literature has often anticipated such questions. For me as an ethicist it is therefore clear that science fiction enriches the ethical discourse. Too often we attempt to reduce ethical ideas to a formula – for example in utilitarianism or deontological ethics.

But ethics is more than that. Ethics is also about reflecting on who we are as people and the kind of world we want to live in. In particular in relation to technological developments, we should reflect on the various possible forms the future might take and ask ourselves: In what kind of future do we want to live? How can we prevent undesirable developments?

Studying the future should be an academic endeavor. Indeed, some universities are already dedicating teams to this field. For example, the University of Oxford has a Future of Humanity Institute while Cambridge has a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. An interdisciplinary approach is needed to study the future, involving scholars from a variety of fields, for example computer science, literature, or theology.

2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey
“Science fiction can stimulate our fantasies,” says ethicist Johann Roduit. (Picture: zVg)


Science fiction can stimulate our fantasies and help us to picture various possible futures. 2001: A Space Odyssey is particularly helpful in getting us to reflect on what it is to be human. The film is a meta-narrative which tells the history of humankind – from pre-humans to post-human artificially intelligent beings.

It is time to reflect on ethics for a post-human age, but to do this, we have to be clear about what post-human means. Representatives of “post-humanism” believe that new technologies such as genetic engineering will lead to new species above and beyond homo sapiens. Humans with super-powers (human enhancement), and cyborgs, that is beings that are a mix of human and machine, would also be categorized as post-human.

Ethics of cooperation

But the expression post-human can also be understood differently – namely, a shift away from seeing humans as the center of the universe. Post-human ethics would also take into account the interests of our planet, of the universe, and of other species – including all the above-mentioned new types of beings.

Regardless of our understanding of the term, we must address fundamental questions: Is it really possible that we humans will (or will have to) coexist with new types of beings? What do we see as the role of our species? Representatives of the enhancement school of thought sometimes seem to see it as a competition: Humans need an “upgrade” in order to keep up with artificial intelligence.

In my opinion, competition is not the route we want to go down. As humans, we are capable of cooperation – cooperation with members of our own or of other species, as well as with the environment.  I focus on this aspect in my own research in the field of ethics – the search for a collaborative kind of ethics for the post-human age.

The 50th birthday of Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a good opportunity to open up and intensify the debate about the future of our species and our planet. It is worth looking into the future, mainly because in doing so we see a reflection and can make sense of our existence in the present. As part of the 502001.CH initiative, we are staging events throughout Switzerland that are sure to stimulate debate. We’d love to see you there.


Dr. Johann Roduit is the Managing Director of the Center for Medical Humanities in the Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine at the University of Zurich and a Senior Researcher at the Collegium Helveticum. He is a founding member of NeoHumanitas, a think-tank fostering discussion about future and emerging technologies. Since 2014, Johann Roduit has been the scientific coordinator for the project: The goal of this SNSF project is to engage with high school students about bioethical issues regarding the use of emerging technologies.

The Initiative

To celebrate the 50th birthday of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 502001.CH initiative is organizing a series of events in 2018 (workshops, film screenings, conferences, etc.). The goal is to reflect on the future of our species, with Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film as a starting point. On 21 May, the event “Cyborg Days” will take place at UZH as part of the initiative. The initiative was launched in January at the Collegium Helveticum with the workshop From Human to Post-Human? Ethical Inquiry.

English translation by Caitlin Stephens, UZH Communications

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