AI technology as challenge and opportunity for the humanistic basis of the Norwegian welfare society

HumAIn is a project started by TechPhil and collaborators in 2021


The rapid development of AI technology brings many challenges – and opportunities – for the Norwegian welfare society. The success of the Norwegian welfare state is as much the function of political and economic arrangements as it is due to a set of entrenched humanistic values typical of the Nordic countries (i.e. a unique “Nordic humanism” with roots in Christian and enlightenment thinking), such as a high level of equality, solidarity, cooperation and trust (Ess, 2020; Witoszek, 2011; Witoszek & Hanssen, 1998; Witoszek & Sørensen, 2018). Salaries and rights are negotiated in a collective bargaining process based on solidarity and trust, but this process is vulnerable “if greed encroaches upon solidarity and undermines traditional Nordic communitarian values” (Joly and Olsen, in (Midttun et al., 2011)). The humanistic value basis of the Norwegian welfare society is currently challenged in multiple ways by AI technology (Bergsjø & Bergsjø, 2019; Hareide, 2020; Whittlestone, Nyrup, Alexandrova, & Cave, 2019). Humanism is first a theory of human nature (humans are free, of equal value, etc.); second, it has ethical and societal implications for what constitutes a good life and a good society (democracy, human rights, formation through critical thinking, etc.) (Davies, 2008; Hareide, 2013). Both of these dimensions in Nordic humanism are challenged by AI technology, and will be investigated in the first and second work package respectively. Even if humans are free to do what they want, they can be unfree and unaware of what they really want or what is in their best interest, depending on what shapes their identity and desires (Taylor, 1979). A humanistic formation intends us to want equality and social justice for all, while technology mainly serves the interest of the individual instead of societal goals, trying to shape our identity and desires to want products for sale (Zuboff, 2019). When our social interaction is so extensively mediated by technology, how will that effect the social cohesion that keeps the Norwegian social contract together? The challenges point to both dystopian and utopian scenarios. On the one hand, many fear the threat of AI technology to democracy and even to humanity itself (Bostrom, 2016), cf. Hawking and Musk. At the same time, the technology offers immense opportunities, for example in terms of cheap labour and efficient problem-solving.

Knowledge needs and project objectives

There is hardly any research on how AI technology challenges the humanistic basis of the Norwegian welfare society, nor is there any on how it can be strengthened by the same technology (Witoszek & Sørensen, 2018). The research group TechPhil has the intersection of AI, ethics and anthropology as its main area of research, while Nina Witoszek – through many projects – has conducted research on the cultural foundation of the Nordic model and the ways it interacts with economic and political processes (Midttun & Witoszek, 2019). HumAIn is a collaboration between researchers from TechPhil and our research partner Nina Witoszek from the Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo. Our primary objective is to identify and clarify central challenges and opportunities posed by AI technology to the humanistic basis of the Norwegian welfare state model in order for politicians and others to make better decisions related to AI.

The primary objective will be reached by means of two secondary objectives (organized in two work packages), focusing on what we hypothesize to be crucial challenges and opportunities in the two major dimensions of Nordic humanism, i.e. its theory of human nature and the implications for what constitutes a good life and a good society: 

List of references

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Bostrom, Nick. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Davies, Tony. Humanism. The New Critical Idiom. 2nd ed.  London; New York: Routledge, 2008.

Ess, Charles M. «Trust and Information, and Communication Technologies.» Chap. 31 In The Routledge Handbook of Trust and Philosophy, edited by Judith Simon. Abingdon, 2020.

Hareide, Dag. Hva er humanisme.  Oslo: Universitetsforl., 2013.

———. Mennesket og teknomaktene.  Oslo: Aschehoug, 2020.

Midttun, Atle, and Nina Witoszek. «The Competitive Advantage of Collaboration – Throwing New Light on the Nordic Model.» New Political Economy  (09/08 2019): 1-17.

Midttun, Atle, Nina Witoszek, Carlos Joly, Sylvia Karlsson-Vinkhuyzen, Per Olsen, Lennart Olsson, P. Sigurjonssón, et al. «The Nordic Model: Is It Sustainable and Exportable?». International Journal of Foresight and Innovation Policy  (01/01 2011).

Taylor, Charles. «What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty?». In The Idea of Freedom. Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, 175-93. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Whittlestone, Jess, Rune Nyrup, Anna Alexandrova, and Stephen Cave. The Role and Limits of Principles in Ai Ethics: Towards a Focus on Tensions. 2019. DOI:10.1145/3306618.3314289.

Witoszek, Nina. The Origins of the «Regime of Goodness»: Remapping the Cultural History of Norway.  Oslo: Universitetsforl., 2011.

Witoszek, Nina, and Toril Hanssen. Norske Naturmytologier: Fra Edda Til Økofilosofi. Nature’s Mythologies.  Oslo: Pax, 1998.

Witoszek, Nina, and Øystein Sørensen. » Nordic Humanism as a Driver of the Welfare Society.» Chap. 3 In Sustainable Modernity: The Nordic Model and Beyond, edited by Nina Witoszek and Atle Midttun. Routledge Studies in Sustainability, 36-58. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. First edition. ed.  New York: PublicAffairs, 2019.