Global AI Narratives – AI and Communism 07-May-2021

07-May-2021 saw the 18th overall (and the first one for me… as irony would have it, the entire event series slipped below my radar during the consecutive lockdowns) event in the Global AI Narratives (GAIN) series, co-organised by Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (LCFI). Missing the first 17 presentations was definitely a downer, but the one I tuned in was *the* one: AI and Communism.

Being born and raised in a Communist (and subsequently post-Communist) country is a bit like music: you can talk about it all you want, but you can’t really know it unless you’ve experienced it (and I have). [Sidebar: as much as I respect everyone’s right to have an opinion and to voice it, I can’t help but cringe hearing Western-born 20- or 30-something year old proponents of Communism or Socialism, who have never experienced centrally planned economy, hyperinflation (or even good old-fashioned upper double-, lower triple-digit inflation), state-owned and controlled media, censorship, shortages of basic everyday goods, etc. etc. etc. I know that Capitalism is not exactly perfect, and maybe it’s time to come up with something better, but I don’t think that many Eastern Europeans would willingly surrender their EU passports, freedom of movement, freedom of speech etc. Then again, it *might* be different in the era of AI and Fully Automated Luxury Communism.]

Stanisław Lem in 1966

Stanisław Lem in 1966

The thing about Communism (and that’s speaking from limited and still-learning perspective) is that there was in fact much, much more to it than many people realise. We’re talking decades (how many decades exactly depends on individual country) and hundreds of millions of people, so that’s obviously a significant part of the history of the 20th century. The Iron Curtain held so tight that for many years the West was either missing out altogether or had disproportionately low exposure to culture, art, or science of the Eastern Bloc (basically everything that was not related to the Cold War). As the West was largely about competition (including competition for attention) there was limited demand for Communist exports because there wasn’t much of a void to fill. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t exciting ideas, philosophies, works of art, or technological inventions being created in the East.

The GAIN event focused on the fascinating intersection of philosophy, literature, and technology. It just so happens that one of the (world’s) most prolific Cold War-era thinkers on the topic of the future of technology and mankind in general was Polish. I’m referring to the late, great, there-will-never-be-anyone-like-him Stanislaw Lem (who deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature like there was no tomorrow – one could even say more than some of the Polish recipients thereof). Lem was a great many things: he was a prolific writer whose works span a very wide spectrum of sci-fi (almost always with a deep philosophical or existential layer), satire disguised as sci-fi, and lastly philosophy and technology proper (it was in one of his essays in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s I have first read of the concept of the brain-computer interface (BCI); I don’t know to what extent BCI was Lem’s original idea, but he was certainly one of its pioneers and early advocates). He continued writing until his death in 2006.

One of Lem’s foremost accomplishments is definitely 1964’s Summa Technologiae, a reference to Thomas Acquinas’ Summa Theologiae dating nearly seven centuries prior (1268 – 1273). Summa discusses technology’s ability to change the course of human civilisation (as well as the civilisation itself) through cybernetics, evolution (genetic engineering), and space travel. Summa was the sole topic of one of the GAIN event’s presentations, delivered by Bogna Konior, an Assistant Arts Professor at the Interactive Media Arts department of NYU Shanghai. Konior took Lem’s masterpiece out of its philosophical and technological “container” and looked at it from a wider perspective of the Polish social and political system Lem lived in – a system that was highly suspicious, discouraging (if not openly hostile) to new ways of thinking. She finds Lem pushing back against the political status quo.

While Bogna Konior discussed one of the masterpieces of a venerated sci-fi giant, the next speaker, Jędrzej Niklas, presented what may have sounded like sci-fi, but was in fact very real (or at least planned to happen for real). Niklas told the story of Poland’s National Information System (Krajowy System Informatyczny, KSI) and a (brief) eruption of “technoenthusiasm” in early 1970’s Poland. In a presentation that sounded at times more like alternative history than actual one Niklas reminded us of some of the visionary ideas developed in Poland around late 1960’s / early 1970’s. KSI was meant to be a lot of things:

  • a central-control system of the economy and manufacturing (pls note that at that time vast majority of Polish enterprises were state-owned);
  • a system of public administration (population register, state budgeting / taxation, natural resources management, academic information index and search engine);
  • academic mainframe network;
  • “Info-highway” – a broad data network for enterprises and individuals linking all major and mid-size cities.

If some or all of the above sound familiar, it’s because they all became everyday uses cases of the Internet. [sidebar: while we don’t / can’t / won’t know for sure, there have been some allegations that Polish ideas from the 1970’s were duly noted in the West; whether they became an inspiration to what ultimately became the Internet we will never know].

While KSI ultimately turned out to be too ambitious and intellectually threatening for the ruling Communist Party, it has not been a purely academic exercise. The population register part of KSI became the PESEL system (an equivalent of the US Social Security Number or British National Insurance Number), which is still in use today, while all the enterprises are indexed by the REGON system.

And just like that, the GAIN / LCFI event made us all aware how many ideas which have materialised (or are likely to materialise in the foreseeable future) may not have originated exclusively in the Western domain. I’m Polish, so my interest and focus are understandably on Poland, but I’m sure the same can be said by people in other, non-Western, parts of the world. While the GAIN / LCFI events have not been recorded in their entirety (which is a real shame), they will form a part of the forthcoming book “Imagining AI: how the world sees intelligent machines” (Oxford University Press). It’s definitely one to add to cart if you ask me.


1. I don’t think that any single work of Lem’s can be singled out as his ultimate masterpiece. His best-known work internationally is arguably Solaris, which had two cinematic adaptations (by Tarkovsky and by Soderbergh), which is equal parts sci-fi and philosophy. Summa Technologiae is probably his most venerated work in the technology circles, possible in the philosophy circles as well. The Star Diaries are likely his ultimate satirical accomplishment. Eden and Return from the Stars are regarded as his finest sci-fi works.