Humanity’s Hegelian Golden Braid speech

On May 24, 2024, I received an honorary doctorate from the University of Perugia and gave a speech entitled Humanity’s Hegelian Golden Braid.

The speech centers on AI, humanity, and technology—and weaves through Hegel and Hofstadter, cathedrals and griffins, T.S. Elliot and Hyman Minsky, and more.

A special thanks to Shaun Young, Alec Ross, Rector Ivano Dionigi, Margaret Burris, Emad Hashim, Alexander Maurizi, Saida Sapieva, Greg Beato, Ben Relles, and Aria Finger for their support with the speech.

I delivered the speech in English—and you can listen to or read it in full below.

But there’s no reason, in this AI era, that my lack of fluency in other languages should be a limiting factor. So I’ve asked REID AI, the AI version of myself, to deliver the speech in many more languages than I can speak.

A bit from REID AI on this:

And click below for the speech in a handful of languages:

The full speech in English:

Thank you for the kind words in that laudatio. And thank you Rector Maurizio Oliviero, the University of Perugia and Brunello Cucinelli for the invitation, hospitality, and honor.

Let’s start where Cato was known to end:

Carthago delenda est.

Roman senator Cato said “Carthage must be destroyed” to end most of his speeches, even if they pertained to a completely different subject. Cato considered rival city Carthage dangerous to Rome and took every opportunity to tell others.

Carthago servanda est.

Fewer people know that Cato’s fellow statesman Corculum used the same rhetorical trick by saying “Carthage must be saved” at the end of his speeches. He believed Carthage’s decline would lead to Rome’s complacency and weakness.

I share this with you because this dynamic is as old as humans. This year in particular—and in those that follow—we will hear growing choruses with repeated refrains:

Artificialis Intelligentia limitari debet. Artificialis Intelligentia accelerari debet.

Artificial Intelligence should be limited. Artificial Intelligence should be accelerated.

The challenge with dichotomies like this is we start to lose the subject at the center of the debate: Us. Humans. Humanity.

And more so, we can forget that humanity is the synthesis of fundamental dichotomies.

There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Hegel that captures this: “Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.”

It’s good to remember that we, humanity, are the emergent synthesis, the blend and beneficiary of ideas in tension with each other.

So before we get lost in the competing crescendos between today’s Catos and Corculums, I will offer alternative rallying cries—six maxims to guide us through. Help elevate us. Help amplify our better selves.

These proclamations are in Latin, to remind us of our human history. And to also remind us that language, our greatest technological tool, evolves with us. Here’s the first dictum:

1. Aut viam inveniam aut faciam. “I shall find a way or make one.”

This phrase has been associated with the famous general Hannibal and philosopher Francis Bacon, but it has modern relevance, too.

This is a pronouncement of the emerging. An emerging technology. An emerging future.

AI is still in its earliest stages—and the more we use it, so are we at the beginning of our next stage. With it, there’s so much more we can do and become.

It reminds me of when I started to find my way—almost 40 years ago in a beer garden in Silicon Valley. Let’s go back there for a minute.

It’s the late 80s and I’m an undergraduate student at Stanford University. I had just declared my course of study in a major called Symbolic Systems. Like Human Sciences—thank you again for the honorary doctorate—it has an importance that is both broad and deep.

One reason I selected Symbolic Systems is that one of its core components was artificial intelligence. So I reached out to Stanford professor John McCarthy. We met for a drink at The Oasis to talk about AI. We discussed the Turing test, human agency, imitation and pattern recognition, and more.

For those of you who may not know Professor John McCarthy, he was a prominent computer scientist and cognitive scientist. But he was best known as one of the founders of the discipline of AI. In fact, he co-authored the paper that coined the term “artificial intelligence.” And here I was, a lucky 21-year-old, discussing and debating with him.

That beer garden was an inflection point of artificial intelligence—for me.

That inflection point only happened because, while I was in high school, I came across a book called Gödel, Escher, Bach. As the title suggests, it explores the deep connections between mathematician Kurt Gödel, artist M.C. Escher, and composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Its subtitle, An Eternal Golden Braid, suggests just how intertwined those various disciplines and expressions of human intelligence are.

In the book, author Douglas Hofstadter presciently says:

“Every aspect of life was already there, inherent in the tapestry. And for a split second I saw the entirety of the tapestry, and I knew what it was about.”

Imagine Hofstader in these moments, his mind delighted by the thread of the tapestry that wove through Gödel, Escher and Bach.

Today, with AI, more humans have the same opportunity. They can find a way—or make one.

AI tools, like ChatGPT, Copilot, or Pi, enable us. They are trained on a corpus of online material by and about people. They are not our replacement, but a powerful extension of us.

Imagine being able to find a thread through Gödel, Escher, Bach, AND Caravaggio AND Rousseau, AND Vivaldi. Or a thread through the skills you have, the skills needed for a job, and the growth rate of that occupation in your region. Or a thread through the ingredients in your kitchen, classic Vietnamese cuisine, the location of a nearby supermarket, and time to get there.

In front of us hangs the vast collection of human creation and contributions woven together, accessible and expanding.

We now have a tool to help us access the entire tapestry—wherever we start looking at it, whichever thread we start to pull first. It’s a powerful tool. One that can help us find a way—or make one.

2. Signa sumus et signa colimus. “We are symbols, and inhabit symbols.”

When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote these lines, he was elaborating on the symbolic quality of the world and our use of language to comprehend and convey it.

Indeed, we humans have always wanted to create and shape our understanding of the world, and we reach for tools that can help us do so.

Symbols are one type of tool we use—and I have what may be a surprising example to explore—something that is also magnificent about this city: the Perugian griffin.

Everywhere I go through this city I see griffins: creatures with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. (Here again is Hegel; we have a synthesis of two powerful forces!)

The griffin’s blend of animal features is a product of the human imagination. It is born out of a desire to create something that did not exist before or occur naturally. And behind that desire is a combination of human values: strength, courage and intelligence.

The griffin is a creation of man—like AI—that reflects the reality and values we want to see in our world. We make the griffin to help us be and do better, in key ways.

First, I just want to note that, in the context of AI, the griffin offers an optimistic reminder that man-made creations don’t have to be doomed. Obviously we have a long tradition of storytelling where doom is the explicit theme. From Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein to James Cameron’s The Terminator, we’re very familiar with a long cast of robots, cyborgs, or technology gone haywire. This makes sense, as humans often start with fear when encountering “the other” or “the new.” But the griffin reminds us that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s a positive symbol of the meaning and possibilities we can create from a position of hope. And so it can be with AI. As we collectively become more familiar with AI, we don’t need to forget fear, but we do need to start navigating with hope.

Second, the griffin offers to be the guide we want and need for each particular stage of the journey. At different points in Perugia’s history, it channeled different meanings: In its earliest days, it was a symbol of dominion over the land and air. During the Middle Ages, it was a symbol of this city’s authority, independence, and readiness to defend itself. Today, it represents many things, but especially the city’s identity, cultural heritage, and historical legacy.

Here’s how I see it: it is the people of Perugia who are the origin of the griffin’s attributes: strength, independence, intelligence. The griffin was always just the symbol for those principles.

The symbol to awaken those intangibles within Perugians. The symbol to inspire them to act and grow with those human values in mind.

Ultimately, humans are both the creators and products of their culture, environment, and decisions. The griffin is the catalyst. And, together with AI, we can build more griffins. We shape our symbols and, in turn, they shape us.

3. Opus immane nostros labores nobilitat et nos in humanam societatem conducit. Cathedral projects bring an ennoblement to our efforts—and turn us into a fellowship.


When I say this word, I say it at first without elaboration, because you, like me, may go both inward and look upward, when you hear it.

How fortunate are those in Europe to move through life amongst cathedrals—these reminders of grand projects that were the work of generations of people. Ones that were started by one generation with the hope that a later generation would complete the task. The mason who set the cathedral’s foundation could expect that his great-great-grandchild would finish the steeple.

Cathedrals are some of humankind’s most awe-inspiring creations, so it’s no wonder that they are the reference in the concept of “cathedral projects”—humanity’s most ambitious and groundbreaking endeavors.

Cathedral projects—such as the Apollo Moon Landing program and our global effort to mitigate climate change—are important for the progress of human society. They, like the griffin, lead us toward a shared mission and purpose.

How great would it be if “cathedral projects” were as present and a part of everyday life as cathedrals are here in Europe! It would remind us that, even as technology helps accelerate them, cathedral projects still require multiple sets of hands. Hands that work in concert across regions, disciplines, and generations.

Even if these cathedral projects might not rise into the sky as cathedrals do, there is an elevation that happens. An elevation of humanity.

In the words of writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

“A cathedral is built with stones; it is made up of stones; but the cathedral ennobles each stone, which becomes a cathedral stone. In the same way, you will only find brotherhood in something larger than yourselves, because one is a brother ‘in’ something, not merely a brother.”

Indeed, it’s not just a stone, but a cathedral stone. Not just a word, but a word in a language. Not just a note, but a note in song. Components are made better and brighter by their purpose, ennobled by what they ultimately assemble. Another form of tapestry.

Cathedral projects bring an ennoblement to our efforts. And turns us into a fellowship.

In this regard, yes, it was James Watt who brought us the steam engine. But it was Thomas Savery who patented the steam engine 60 years before. And Thomas Newcomen who got it to work at atmospheric pressure. Watt built from their efforts to make steam engines more efficient.

It was Humphry Davy who first created an electric light device. And Joseph Swan, 50 years later, who used carbonized paper to make filaments. It was only when Swan merged his company with a business run by Thomas Edison that we got a commercially practical light bulb.

I could go on. To figure out what to build, they simply started building. The stories of the telescope, the radio, the car, the elevator, the airplane, and many more follow the same pattern.

Including AI. Many of us likely know about AI through a recent commercial application, OpenAI’s ChatGPT, but there have been generations of people and inventions that got us to this point. Ones that advanced the field by not only collaborating, but by also working in tension with each other until the way forward could be charted.

And that is also the nature of cathedral projects: they give humanity a sense of direction.

How could they not? Cathedrals, themselves, are essentially compasses. They are laid out such that their entrances face West and their choirs face East. Travelers and locals alike can orient themselves simply by their architecture.

Similarly, we can use our cathedral projects to find our bearings and chart off in the direction most beneficial to humanity. The future depends on it.

4. Parva pericula suscipienda, si inter magna navigare volumus. We must take small risks to navigate big risks.

When I say we must take small risks to navigate big risks, I should mention that we are always taking risks—whether we know it or not. It’s a common misconception that we can steer clear of risk. When in reality, stopping or pausing to avoid risk is a risk—and most often a more perilous one than embracing risk in the first place.

So if we are destined to always take risks, our focus should not be on avoiding them, but navigating them. And one of the wisest ways to do so is to use small risks to negotiate big risks. Taking smaller risks more often is less of a risk—and allows for iteration, discussion, and continual improvement.

Not long ago, I had a conversation with Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor who sits at the intersection of AI, economics, and business. Given our mutual interest in AI, it would have made sense if we spoke of Marvin Minsky, the famous computer scientist and key thinker on AI. But instead we talked of Hyman Minksy, an American economist and professor.

Hyman Minsky is known for the Minsky Moment. You might recall that it’s the point in time when a sudden decline in market sentiment leads to an abrupt, big market crash, marking the end of a period of economic prosperity. To grossly simplify it: the Minskyan thesis is that stability creates instability—and that maximizing stability in the short run leads to instability in the mid and long term. Too many safeguards in a financial system can actually make it more brittle. And at some point when things break, nobody’s prepared and it becomes a huge event.

We can learn from the Minsky Moment as we think about this era in AI. This means finding the right level of AI safeguards and regulations, not only to encourage progress but to better fortify a system that has more and more AI in it. We must take small risks to navigate big risks.

Looking across the history of technology, I am optimistic we are on the right track, not only from a regulatory perspective, but from the point of view of those deploying AI technology. These two are connected: we’ll get better government regulation of AI when these technologies have been deployed to more people to try, use and integrate into their lives.

It will take a network of human accountability to stay on course: a golden braid, if you will, that intertwines government, the private sector, the press, academia, the public—all of us.

And the weaving together is well underway:

  • Iterative deployment—or companies releasing AI models to the public at a frequent cadence—has already resulted in more governance and de facto regulation than a pause or more top-down regulatory efforts.
  • AI developers get feedback from users and real-world experiential data to improve and better safeguard their products.
  • Academic activity around AI fairness, safety, alignment is skyrocketing.
  • There’s coordination and competition among AI products, both proprietary and open source.
  • Most of all, there’s a high level of public engagement and participation; the media and public is playing an active role in determining the future of AI—and its future with AI.
  • All this has led to a greater public awareness and interest in AI, across all aspects of discourse.

AI can accelerate human progress in countless domains, and so far, we’re headed in the right direction when we encourage mass engagement with these AI tools in real-world conditions. And as we go, we must keep the big picture in mind. Yes, Paul Virilio is right: the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck. But it was also the advent of shipping civilizations.

So, as is possible, we want to avoid the Minsky Moment with AI. While government regulation can help, the fastest and most effective way to develop safer, more equitable, and more useful AI tools is to make them accessible to a wide range of users with different values and intentions.

That’s the path for AI to move from possibility to actuality, for more of humanity.

5. Daedali homines sumus, daedala ars nos humanos facit. We are homo techne — technology is what makes us human.

Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.

How does this apply when we are talking about humanity and technology?

If we talk about humankind as thesis and AI as antithesis—as often is portrayed in today’s discourse—the temptation is to imagine a synthesis that’s too literal: a cyborg that’s half human, half machine.

Instead what if, like Hofstadter, we think of the synthesis more as a tapestry: threads that are integrated and interwoven. Or as an eternal golden braid, where disparate elements twist back on themselves and emerge together, meaningful, robust, and important.

T.S. Elliot may also offer us some clarity here. He says:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Here’s what I see in those lines: after a thesis and antithesis become a synthesis, that synthesis becomes the new thesis.We arrive where we started—a thesis—but we know it for the first time because it is new. It is better. It has evolved with us.

It’s the same with humans and technology. The synthesis is not a cyborg, but a better human. We arrive at ourselves, amplified and improved through technology.

We are a myriad of syntheses, an ever-improving thesis as we shape new technology—and new technology shapes us. In fact, if you look throughout history, technology is the thing that makes us us.

If we merely lived up to our scientific classification—Homo sapiens—and just sat around thinking all day, we’d be much different creatures than we actually are.

We humans are homo techne: humans as toolmakers and tool users.

And more than this, we evolve with and through our tools. Through the tools we create, we become neither less human nor superhuman, nor post-human. We become more human.

And with AI, we have the opportunity to become super humane. Let me explain.

One thing millions of people experienced for the first time recently is how responsive, present, and patient conversational AI models can be.

So while these models are explicitly not conscious or self-aware, they are, in their own statistically probable way, superhumane.

AI, with its availability, patience and simulated empathy, can have a profound impact on humanity at large. Not everyone has reliable access to human kindness and support. But when that becomes something you can have on tap, it increases your own capacity for being able to be kind to other people.

Robots have already been designed to behave empathetically to humans and, in that way, make those humans more empathetic. And numerous studies have shown that behaving empathetically improves physical health.

So imagine the compounding effects we are likely to see as more people in more countries integrate models like ChatGPT and Pi more fully into their lives. Along with getting smarter and more productive, we could be getting kinder, healthier, and more emotionally generous in our interactions with others. I think the full potential of this is going to be a much bigger deal than people realize.

6. Futura nobis efficienda potiora quam praesentia. We have an obligation to make the future better than the now.
Today, many people talk about the dystopia or utopia that AI will bring us.

Only delusional people want a dystopia. That’s not the destination any of us want.

But I also don’t want a utopia either. Utopia means “no place,” a non-existent society.

Instead I want to ask: how do we navigate with AI to a good place—to a better place?

If not a utopia or dystopia, what is that destination?

We talked about Carthage and Rome. Is that destination our best human civilization?

We talked about Godel, Escher, and Bach. Is that destination densely-integrated human knowledge?

We talked about cathedrals and griffins. Is that destination a stronger embodiment of human values and meaning?

I’m not sure any of us know. Yet.

But all those things—civilization, knowledge, values and meaning—are human. So I’d venture to say that it’s a synthesis of us. The blended best of Rome and Carthage. A golden braid of logic, art and music. Our grand, multi-disciplinary, multi-generational projects—and the symbols that remind us we can realize them.

What we synthesize reflects and shapes us. The alchemy of all parts of our humanity—all our theses and antitheses—and the very worthy human struggle to get to a synthesis that is both familiar and new. To ultimately “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

This is uncharted territory; there’s never a straightforward precedent. Many cite the internet as the closest. This resonates with me, especially if we think of the internet slightly differently.

Let’s imagine the internet as a city! A metropolis that will absorb almost 4 billion more people in the coming decades. A friend and fellow founder Patrick Collison once put it well: “The internet remains one of the most potent enablers of opportunity and advancement in the history of humanity. Several billion people recently immigrated to earth’s most vibrant city.”

What’s remarkable is that, as a city, the internet is still so new! The internet itself became commercially open to the public in the early 1990s. So it’s taken nearly 35 years for just 60% of humanity to be online! But consider for a moment that, 25 years ago, no country on earth had the majority of its population online. It was in the year 2000 that Norway and Canada became the first countries where more than 50% of their population was online.

All to say, this is both extremely fast, looking at how technology has historically spread to humankind, but also extremely slow, from the point of view of how much the internet could benefit humankind if everyone had access to it.

Now what of AI?

If we were to imagine AI as a city—AI tools like DALL-E or Midjourney could help us here—it would be one that’s rapidly growing in population.

Take ChatGPT as an example. It had 1 million people using it in five days. And 100 million in 2 months. Compare that to the internet, which is estimated to have reached 1 million users in one year. And reach its first 100 million users in about 6 years.

For some AI’s fast rate of growth is concerning, especially given the risks that come at such a velocity. But to me, I bring us back to the maxim: we have an obligation to make the future better than the now. Imagine a personalized, digital doctor or tutor in everyone’s pocket. What is the cost of that not happening sooner than later?

With technology, speed has virtue and, if handled correctly, can get us to where we need to go faster and more safely. On that note, I had the pleasure of driving a Dallara around a racetrack last year here in Italy. I learned that while prudent to brake before a turn, one should never brake in one. To maintain stability in a turn, you’ve got to accelerate through it.

And so, I want to encourage you: grab the wheel and go to this metropolis—this city of AI. Visit. Explore. Learn how to traverse it. Because it will be one of the world’s most important places.

As we collectively visit and shape this city of AI, let’s take some of what we see with us, weave it into our lives, and create something new. The real tragedy with the Hegelian dialectic is if one gets stuck at the dialogue between thesis and antithesis—and misses the synthesis entirely.

And so I ask you about AI:

Is there a future where the massive proliferation of robots ushers in a new era of human flourishing, not human marginalization? Where AI-driven research helps us safely harness the power of nuclear fusion in time to avert the worst consequences of climate change? It’s only natural to peer into the dark unknown and ask what could possibly go wrong. It’s equally necessary—and more essentially human—to do so and envision what could possibly go right.

It’s not human vs. AI. It’s human with AI.

It’s not thesis vs. antithesis. It’s synthesis.

And so, with Cato in mind, I will end with what I hope becomes a refrain:

Figura debet AI. AI auxilium nobis figurat.

We must shape AI. And, in turn, let AI help shape us.

Thank you.