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News: December 2019 / January 2020

This month’s prizes! • News from the dawn of time • Google to be renamed ‘Skynet’? — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Philosophy Awards 1: Lisa Herzog

The Max Uwe Redler Foundation in Germany has named Lisa Herzog as winner of its Award for Philosophy and Social Ethics. The award is a coveted recognition for academics who relate philosophy to the position of the individual in society, consider social structures and enquire into the values of our actions.

Hamburg businessman Max Uwe Redler, who died in 2006, believed in the importance of philosophy in making a difference to our world and specifically the conditions under which we live. The biannual Award is a marker of this conviction. Herzog, who is a professor of philosophy at the Technical University Munich, focuses in her research on the overlap between philosophy and economics, exploring issues concerning the nature of labour, distributive justice and the status of economic institutions. Her book Reclaiming the System: Moral Responsibility, Divided Labour, and the Role of Organizations in Society offers a new interpretation of the way we live, work and interact and considers how hierarchies and structures affect our social and economic lives. Herzog says she will spend the handsome award sum of 100,000 euros on a Porsche on more research in her field.

Philosophy Awards 2: Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Philosophy occasionally uses language that sounds like it has been borrowed from lawyers. Kant wrote a Critique of Judgment and Witttgenstein argued that “the world is all that is the case.” Now a prestigious prize normally given to philosophy professors has been awarded to a Supreme Court justice. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, known to rappers as ‘The Notorious RBG’, has been named winner of the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture. The annual prize, worth a million dollars, honours “thinkers whose ideas have helped us find direction, wisdom, and improved self-understanding in a world being rapidly transformed by profound social, technological, political, cultural, and economic change.” Ginsberg’s life and career, her contributions to furthering social justice and human equality, fit this description perfectly. Feminist pioneer, ardent advocate of women’s rights, gender equality and civil liberties, Ginsberg, a cancer survivor, is as passionate a defender of justice as she has ever been.

Philosophy Awards 3: Who Do You Think?

In purely financial terms, Philosophy Now’s Award For Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity (philosophynow.org/award) is a poor cousin of the rich prizes in the two preceding news items. All we can offer our winner are a book token and a perspex trophy. Still, winners in previous years have included Mary Midgley, Peter Singer and Noam Chomsky. Our 2020 Award ceremony is scheduled for the Philosophy Now Festival on 18 January 2020 (philosophynow.org/festival), an all-day philosophy extravaganza at Conway Hall in Central London. May we remind you that we accept suggestions for worthy candidates throughout the year. Your nominations are always welcome, and we hope to see you at the Festival.

News From Prehistory 1

What made us human? A recent discovery may fill in one more piece of that vast puzzle. One key characteristic of humanity is our ability to walk upright. By freeing our front paws for complex tasks this has enabled all sorts of other advances. Fossils of a newly-discovered ancient ape provide new evidence of when and how this ability to stand upright first came about. Analysis of the fossils found near Pforzen in Bavaria, suggests the answers are: 11.6 million years ago, standing on branches in trees. Prof Madelaine Böhme from the University of Tübingen believes the ape, which has been named Danuvius guggenmosi, could provide one of the ‘missing links’ between humans and apes.

News From Prehistory 2

A study published in Nature indicates that all humans alive today can ultimately trace their ancestry to an area south of the Zambezi basin in northern Botswana. The area, now mainly salt pans, was once dominated by an enormous lake. A combination of genetics, geology and computer simulations of climate models allowed scientists to imagine what the African continent might have been like 200,000 years ago. This, according to the study, is when our ancestors lived there. The conclusion mainly relies on tracing back the human genetic tree using hundreds of samples of mitochondrial DNA, the scrap of DNA passed down the maternal line, from living Africans. Prof Vanessa Hayes, a geneticist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia explains: “We observed significant genetic divergence in the modern humans’ earliest maternal sub-lineages, that indicates our ancestors migrated out of the homeland between 130 and 110 thousand years ago.”

Autonomous Killer Robots

Last year thousands of workers at Google protested at being asked to work on Project Maven (since cancelled) which aimed to use machine learning to improve the ability of US military drones to identify their own targets. Software engineer Laura Nolan also resigned and has founded TechWontBuildIt Dublin, an organisation for technology workers concerned about the ethical implications of their work. She recently joined the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and has briefed UN officials about the threats posed by autonomous weapons. She argues that killer robots not directly controlled by humans should be outlawed by the type of international treaty that already bans chemical weapons. She told The Guardian: “There could be large-scale accidents because these things will start to behave in unexpected ways. Which is why any advanced weapons systems should be subject to meaningful human control, otherwise they have to be banned because they are far too unpredictable and dangerous.”

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