Cultivating cognitive liberty in the age of generative AI

By Nita Farahany
Professor of Law and Philosophy at Duke University
A close-up image of a digitally designed series of cubes that range from colorless to glowing vibrant shades of green. This visual represents how an idea ignites the potential of AI to contribute to human flourishing, magnifying endless possibilities in this rapid revolution.

AI is transforming our world at an astonishing pace, and with it, our cognitive landscape. As we encounter more sophisticated and persuasive machine-generated content, we need to become increasingly aware of how our cognitive biases and heuristics can be exploited and manipulated. How do we flourish in this rapidly changing environment? By embracing cognitive liberty—a crucial update to our understanding of liberty in the digital age. Cognitive liberty is a right to self-determination over our brains and mental experiences, which includes a right to access and use technologies that change our brains if we choose to do so. And it is also a right from unwanted interference with our mental privacy and freedom of thought.

To explore the implications of cognitive liberty for our interaction with generative AI, I experimented with one of the most powerful generative tools available today: GPT-4. I tasked it with various challenges, from summarizing scientific articles to discussing philosophical quandaries. The results were intriguing. GPT-4 not only produced accurate and coherent texts, but also pointed me to relevant human-generated ideas and sources that enriched my learning. I also encountered factual errors, fabricated facts, and at times, frustratingly banal answers. Making it critical to remain vigilant about verifying information, and being aware of the influence of its responses on my own thinking. I’m left with a complex mix of emotions and insights, which underscore the need to confront challenges posed by generative AI tools to the framework of cognitive liberty.

Cognitive liberty is a pivotal component of human flourishing that has been overlooked by traditional theories of liberty—primarily because we have taken for granted that our brains and mental experiences are under our own control. This assumption is being replaced with more nuanced understandings of the human brain and its interaction with our environment, our interactions with others, and our interdependence with technology. Cultivating cognitive liberty in the digital age will become increasingly vital to enable humans to exercise individual agency, nurture human creativity, discern fact and fiction, and reclaim our critical thinking skills amid unprecedented cognitive opportunities and risks.

It is imperative that we remain steadfast in protecting and promoting cognitive liberty as a critical concept for human flourishing in the digital age.

Generative AI tools like GPT-4 pose new challenges to cognitive liberty, including the potential to interfere with and manipulate our mental experiences. They can exacerbate biases and distortions that undermine the integrity and reliability of the information we consume, in turn influencing our beliefs, judgments, and decisions. Which is in addition to cultivating skills of self-determination, we must also recognize rights and develop tools to safeguard us against interference with our mental privacy and freedom of thought. We must act quickly to recognize rights against mental manipulation, and to develop new systems and processes to detect factual distortions and foster greater transparency into machine-generated content and its impact on our mental processes.

Cognitive liberty builds on earlier concepts of liberty that are fundamental to human flourishing. It bridges John Stuart Mill’s concept of liberty as necessary to moral progress in civilization with John Locke’s classic liberal view of natural rights to self-ownership and self-governance. As we continue to grapple with the challenges posed by generative AI tools like GPT-4, it is imperative that we remain steadfast in protecting and promoting cognitive liberty as a critical concept for human flourishing in the digital age.

As the technology advances and our interactions with it deepen, other risks will continue to emerge—risks that extend beyond interference with our mental experiences. How do we proceed? I’m reminded of the words of the late philosopher and my colleague on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, John Arras. He advocated for an Aristotelian approach to risk: ongoing assessment and research, coupled with safeguards. This approach calls for a balanced consideration of the potential benefits and harms of generative AI tools, to monitor and evaluate their impacts on individuals and society, and to establish and enforce ethical and legal norms and standards that respect and uphold cognitive liberty.

The view, opinion, and proposal expressed in this essay is of the author and does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other entity or organization, including Microsoft and OpenAI. The author is solely responsible for the accuracy and originality of the information and arguments presented in their essay. The author’s participation in the AI Anthology was voluntary and no incentives or compensation was provided.

Farahany, N. (2023, June 19). Cultivating Cognitive Liberty in the Age of Generative AI. In: Eric Horvitz (ed.), AI Anthology.

Nita Farahany

Nita Farahany, author of The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology (St. Martin’s Press 2023), is a futurist and legal ethicist, Founding Director of Duke Science & Society, and the Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law & Philosophy at Duke University.

A portrait of Nita Farahany