Sana takes the AI discussion to an existential level
Observations from the Sana AI Summit
Konrad Olsson
30 May 2024

My interest in artificial intelligence coincided with my first wave of a midlife crisis. I was 38, and with the big four-0 looming, I noticed an increased interest in stuff like the size of the universe, the existence of God, and what the hell is the meaning of all this?!!

Like many midlife men before me, realising that life is finite instigated a search into topics like philosophy, religion, cosmology, and technology. The notion of artificial intelligence perfectly captures all of these into one discussion. 

What happens when humankind gives birth to an intelligence that supersedes them? 

(This was, coincidently, when I started to question my role in the fashion industry, which led me to want to help with changing it, which led me to found Scandinavian MIND—but that’s a story for another column.)

I think about this as I visit the second annual Sana AI Summit, which took place at the Eric Ericssonhallen in Stockholm two weeks ago. 

With speakers like Benedict Evans, Geoffrey Hinton, and Max Tegmark it is definitely one of the most high-profile tech events in the Nordics, and the biggest flex from any tech company right now. The production is mesmerising, the visuals are stunning, and Sana’s own Lauren Chrichton does a great job moderating the event with a kind of poetic elegance. Casually having people like Spotify’s Gustav Söderström moderating a panel is a testament to the company’s status in the ecosystem right now. The pre-recorded interviews that Sana’s founder Joel Hellermeark did with people like Tegmark, Hinton, and computer scientist Daphne Koller did not disappoint. 

Themes ranged from AI advancements in predictive health care to Sana’s own chatbot (naturally, the whole event is a branding exercise, after all).

Joel Hellermark, founder of Sana.

But once the different sessions unfolded, an existential through-line could be sensed. 

Geoffrey Hinton touched upon how humans and large language models are analogy machines. “The analogy with religious belief and symbol processing is the same.” George is clearly a role model of Joel Hellermark’s… Come to think of it, the whole event might be an excuse for Joel to speak to his AI heroes. I don’t blame him; I’ve used the old “interview your heroes” trick many times throughout my career. 

Tuomas Sandholm ended his session on the future of science and knowledge by asking what will happen if we, with the help of AI, start finding knowledge that humans won’t be able to understand. It was one of many mind-bending moments. 

Max Tegmark, an avid AI worrier who famously started a petition to halt all AI developments last year (I wrote about it here), ended his segment by saying: 

“I don’t think the universe gives meaning to us, I think we will give meaning to the universe.“

Jeanette Winterson

The existential crescendo came as the last speaker took the stage, author Jeanette Winterson, who recently published the book 12 Bytes: How Artificial Intelligence Will Change the Way We Live and Love

Jeanette, who, like me, grew up in a Pentecostal community, asked a question I’ve been pondering many times: “Why is it that all these folks working in computing science and who don’t believe in God are doing their best to invent that being?” she said, reading from a paper manuscript. 

Jeanette went on to find many similarities between technology and religion. For example, Google’s Larrey Page once likened the search question to a prayer. Gods are nonbiological and nonchronological, with no need to eat or sleep, and live in the cloud—just like AI. 

“It’s fascinating to me that science and religion are asking the same big questions. Is death the end of life? Religion said no; science said yes. Is consciousness obliged to materiality?  Religion said no, science said yes.”

It was in the analogy with the divine where Jeanette found the hopeful silver lining in the current AI developments:

“AI has no skin colour, no gender, no interest in faith wars, no hatred of the stranger. It’s not incentivised by the levers of power and wealth that have dictated human experience. AI might not align with our values. And that might not be such a bad thing.”

It was a refreshing philosophical and existential perspective that distracted us from the hands-on discussions about user interfaces, work optimisation, and improved communication. It also made for one of the best tech events I’ve ever experienced, breathing new life into the AI discussion with an equally worried and optimistic perspective, both in a nuanced way, never dogmatic or binary.  

”Once again”, said Jeanette, ”we choose to live alongside non-biological entities”. 

Leaving the event felt all the more fitting in that it took place in a deconsecrated church. 

The speech and other sessions are available on Sana’s website