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Philipp von Becker

On digitital transformation, politics and ethics: 3 questions with Philipp von Becker

 

In his book, “Der neue Glaube an die Unsterblichkeit. Transhumanismus, Biotechnik und digitaler Kapitalismus” (unofficially translated to: “The New Faith in Immortality. Transhumanism, Biotechnology and Digital Capitalism”), author and filmmaker Philipp von Becker illuminates, among other things, the efforts of transhumanists, researchers and the super-rich to create eternal life. The book conveys a partly gruesome-real near future – and its consequences for society. It deals with urgent ethical questions that have hardly been addressed by politics and society so far. Philipp von Becker has answered 42 Magazine three questions about his book.

 

42: Mr. Becker – your book “The New Faith in Immortality. Transhumanism, Biotechnology and Digital Capitalism” was published in 2015. Has your prognosis become a part of reality since then?

PB: To avoid misunderstanding: I wasn‘t giving a prognosis, but tried to point out the motivations behind the tech fantasies of Silicon Valley’s apostles. It was a year after my book was published that I learned about the probably widest known real life implementation of „social physics“ today: the planned social credit system of the People’s Republic of China. I included this new aspect in a german article I published based on one of my book chapters.

From a western perspective, I would claim it was rather the depth and width of reflection that has changed in the last couple of years than that which is imaginable and technically feasible. A multitude of publications and debates have shown that we need to find alternatives to Silicon Valley surveillance capitalism or the digital authoritarianism practiced by the People’s Republic of China, if we want to reclaim and preserve privacy, freedom and democracy in the 21st Century.

42: In the second chapter of your book, you point out that the Enlightenment brought us freedom, but simultaneously dissolved certainty and the existing order. Do technological developments provide us with answers to this loss?

PB: Technological developments are one of the main reasons causing this ‚loss‘! And with the new freedoms and possibilities of technical-capitalist (late) modernity, we are currently experiencing a new phase of the dissolution of existing orders and certainties, in which the constant delimitation and acceleration of world relations also lead to (perceived) insecurity, disorientation and powerlessness. Which, in turn, is a decisive reason for the fact that a relapse into insurance and support can be experienced as promising offers of religion, nationalism and racism. Therefore, the relationship of freedom and technology is always of dialectical nature, meaning they are opposing forces to a certain extent. In our “digital age”, the computer offers unprecedented opportunities for politics, economics, science and society, which offer enormous potential for liberation and, above all, could signify a golden century for science. Simultaneously, new mechanisms for control and surveillance, as well as new dependencies, arise. Technology as such is not going to solve our problems since the systemic conditions under which such technology is used matter. In practice, the primary goal of social and liberal policy should be to ensure that the digital infrastructures of the 21st Century are neither owned and controlled by private banks and corporations nor used by state bureaucracies for anti-democratic and anti-freedom surveillance.

Facing new freedoms and opportunities and the uncertainties such change brings about, we need a progressive idea of security, rather than a reactionary one. This new understanding of security has to be based on participation and self-efficacy. Ranging from data to housing, the question of ownership and the idea of the ‘common good’ is asked more frequently than ever. Although it’s not about abolishing private property and the market economy altogether, as media and political forces immediately proclaimed, actually quite the opposite is the case: It is a matter of diversifying property titles in terms of rights and obligations to goods and processes, and of participation in decision-making. More freedom by security would in this sense not constitute more police, military and surveillance, but an increase in participation, equal opportunities and justice for all.

42: Could you name specific steps leading us in that direction?

PB: Ideas and concepts on how to rethink and organize communities in a globalized world beyond the supposed “factual constraints” of acceleration, growth, innovation and profit maximization imperatives are actually all there. It is the question of how to implement them that matters. We need new power structures, new ways of participation and decision making in companies, institutions and, last but not least, in our shared macro-institution of negotiating and governing social processes – the state. Therefore, besides debating carbon taxes, ownership structures and the disempowerment of big data monopolies, we need to debate a reform of our representative democracy. A two chamber system, in which one chamber of parliament is elected and the other is selected by lot, as proposed by David Van Reybrouck in his book “Against Elections: The Case of Democracy”, could be a promising step in that direction, for example.

It is pretty clear to me already that we will not find answers to the problems ahead of us in the ideas and concepts of the 20th Century – especially, if we acknowledge that digital transformation in our current economy will intensify energy and resource consumption further. The extent to which the use of (digital) technology can be beneficial in establishing a different set of values that protects our privacy and the biosphere thus depends on the values and goals we set ourselves as a society. Before everything and everyone can be digitally connected, it must therefore first be clarified why and to what end we choose to undergo such change: Thinking, values and goals should come first, digital transformation second.

Interview and translation: Philipp Lehmann
Photo: David von Becker

“Life and Everything” – The 42-Song

42 hat viele Gesichter: Wir sind 42 Magazine, wir sind der 42_deepthought-Blog, wir sind die 42_analog-Eventreihe. Und jetzt haben wir sogar unseren eigenen Sound! Der Musiker Ingo Richmann hat für uns einen wundervollen Song geschrieben – und wie könnte er anders heißen als Life and Everything? Inspiriert ist der Titel natürlich von Douglas Adams „vierteiliger Triologie“ Per Anhalter durch die Galaxis. Wir fühlen uns geehrt. Hört doch mal rein!

Was wir euch natürlich auch nicht vorenthalten wollen sind die netten Worte, die Ingo Richmann über 42 verloren hat:

„Wow, gut gemacht! 42 Magazine eröffnet andere Betrachtungsweisen und hinterfragt die eigenen, verinnerlichten Allgemeinplätze. Der Ton des Magazins ist erfreulich unaufgeregt, trotz der brisanten Themen – ein ausgesprochen kluger Weg.“

Das lassen wir gerne so stehen 🙂

42_analog at Waterstones Gower Street, London

Credit: Lisa Zahrobsky

The first event of our series 42_analog “Looking North, Going South: Facing the Realities of Climate Change” is over but we are still thrilled by all the new impulses we got from our expert panel discussing and reflection on climate change – we hope so are you who came by to listen and contribute. During this insightful evening at Waterstones Gower Street in London, we witnessed a nuanced discussion on the perspectives on climate change and its dimensions, based on the consensus that climate change is happening everywhere on the planet at this very moment and that it will affect us all. Steadily increasing temperatures will increase the occurrence of extreme weather phenomena and therefore change our perception and attitude towards the natural environment we are so familiar with.

 

 

However, as Friederike Otto, Acting Director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford put it: “Climate change is not going to have us all drown tomorrow, but it will intensify conflict. That is the real threat.” As habitats all over the world become less liveable, the differences in wealth distribution become more visible, as wealth is the most important factor for protection against the effects of climate change. Considering the social dimension of climate change allows emphasizing questions of inequality. Action is needed, on a personal as well on a structural level. We have to raise our voices, raise the volume of the public discussion so that the need for structural changes becomes evident. That’s what we do at 42.

Please find some impressions of the evening below.

Welcome to 42’s new blog 42_deepthought

“News. News. News. Brexit, EU elections and the ever new interesting remarks of a certain Washington politician – political news reach us more frequently than just on a daily basis. Every second, every minute brings new coverage to our social media newsfeeds, our preferred online media outlets and via push notification to the touchscreens of our cellphones. We will look beyond that constant flood of information. Discover special in-depth stories, fascinating people and intriguing projects related to 42 Magazine’s topics with us, Neele, Laura, Philipp, and Anna. We are super excited to start this journey with you! If you have any suggestions or ideas, feel free to get in touch with us via Facebook, Twitter or fortytwomagazine.com.”

“News. News. News. Brexit, EU-Wahlen und die immer wieder interessanten Bemerkungen eines gewissen Politikers aus Washington – gesellschaftlich relevante Nachrichten erreichen uns mehrmals am Tag. Jede Sekunde, jede Minute spült neue Inhalte in unsere Social Media Newsfeeds, unsere liebsten Online Informationsquellen und per push Nachricht auf die Bildschirme unserer Smartphones. Gemeinsam mit uns, Neele, Laura, Philipp und Anna, werden wir hinter die konstante Flut aus Informationen schauen, die uns täglich erreicht. Entdecke ungewöhnliche Stories, faszinierende Menschen und Projekte mit Bezug zu den Themen von 42 Magazine. Wir freuen uns sehr auf diese Reise mit euch! Wenn ihr Fragen oder Ideen habt, dann kontaktiert uns gerne via Facebook, Twitter oder fortytwomagazine.com.”

Foto: Arton Krasniqi

Gianis Varoufakis im 42-Gespräch zur Europawahl

Gianis Varoufakis und die EU haben ein gespaltenes Verhältnis zueinander. Als griechischer Finanzminister war er 2015 ein strikter Gegner der Sparmaßnahmen gegen das Mittelmeerland. Heute tritt er für eine pro-europäische transnationale Partei bei der Europawahl an – und will die EU-Insitutionen radikal reformieren. Im Interview spricht er über seine Pläne für Europa, übers Sparen und Reparationsforderungen.

Herr Varoufakis. 2015 waren Sie griechischer Finanzminister für die regierende Syriza-Partei. Bei dieser Europawahl kandidieren Sie nun in Deutschland für „Demokratie in Europa – DiEM 25“. Wie ist es dazu gekommen?

Europa befindet sich seit der Finanzkrise im Jahr 2008 in einem Prozess der Fragmentierung. Heute gewinnt in Deutschland die AfD an Einfluss, Frankreich ist erstarrt, Italien befindet sich im Griff des Neofaschisten Matteo Salvini. Ich habe schon lange vor dieser Entwicklung gewarnt. Nur deshalb bin ich in die Politik gegangen. Auch wenn es damals nicht so dargestellt wurde: Ich habe mich immer dafür eingesetzt, Europa wieder zu vereinen. Ich hätte nie um etwas für Griechenland gebeten, das nicht gut für Europa ist. Solange wir nicht anfangen, an unsere gemeinsamen Vorteile zu denken und die Austeritätspolitik  stoppen, werden wir politische Monster füttern. Wir müssen die Fragmentierung bekämpfen.

Aber wieso treten Sie ausgerechnet in Deutschland an?

Weil es mir die Möglichkeit gibt, etwas klarzustellen, was ich schon seit mehr als einem Jahrzehnt sage: Es ist eine Tragödie, dass die europäische Krise ein stolzes Land gegen das andere aufbringen konnte. Dass sie uns glauben lässt, dass es einen Gegensatz zwischen Griechen und Deutschen, zwischen Nord und Süd, West und Ost gibt. Wir wollen den Menschen mit unserem transnationalen Bündnis zeigen: Es gibt keinen Gegensatz zwischen Norden und Süden, sondern zwischen progressiver Politik und einer großen Bandbreite an Autoritarismus – zum Beispiel der Troika und den Salvinis.

Sie haben mit DiEM 25 eine pro-europäische Bewegung geschaffen. Gleichzeitig sprechen Sie aber davon, die EU-Institutionen „zu übernehmen“ und radikal zu reformieren. Wie passt das zusammen?

Es ist der logische Ansatz. Ich weiß nicht, wie es bei Ihnen ist – aber wenn ich mit meiner Regierung nicht einverstanden bin, sehe ich es als meine Pflicht, mich ihr entgegenzustellen. Das macht aus mir aber nichts anderes als einen Patrioten. Genauso ist es mit Europa. Wenn du es so liebst wie wir, dann musst du dich denen entgegenstellen, die es beschädigen. Das sind zum Beispiel die Euro-Gruppe und die Europäische Zentralbank, die für 2,7 Milliarden Euro Staatsanleihen kauft und sie nicht für Investitionen in bessere Jobs und eine grüne Zukunft einsetzt.

Wie sieht ihr perfektes Europa der Zukunft aus?

Wenn ich die Macht hätte, das Europa von 2050 zu gestalten, wäre es eine demokratische Föderation. Die Frage der Souveränität ist dabei eine, die wir sehr ernst nehmen müssen. Meine Kritik an der Diskussion um dieses Thema – mehr Europa, weniger Europa – ist, dass sie auf einer falschen Annahme beruht. Sie wird als Nullsummenspiel, als Krieg geführt. Mehr Europa oder mehr Staat. Das ist falsch. Im Moment haben wir Staaten, die souverän sein sollen, es aber eigentlich nicht sind, weil wichtige Entscheidungen von unseren nationalen Parlamenten an die EU übertragen werden. Die ist aber eine demokratiefreie Zone und besitzt keinerlei demokratische Souveränität.

Wie meinen Sie das?

Nehmen wir die Eurogruppe: Ich saß dort mit dem Mandat der griechischen Bürger. Wolfgang Schäuble sagte damals völlig zurecht, dass auch er ein Mandat hat, nämlich das der Deutschen. Wenn sich Mandate aber gegenseitig aufheben, haben wir weder souveräne Mitgliedsstaaten noch eine souveräne EU. Wir bei DiEM 25 schlagen vor, europäische Lösungen zu schaffen. Ich wünsche mir ein demokratisches Europa, in dem unsere Uneinigkeit auf unseren Ideologien beruht und nicht darauf, dass wir Deutsch oder Griechisch reden.

Im Moment kann das aber oft noch den Unterschied machen. Wie beurteilen Sie die griechischen Reparationsforderungen gegen Deutschland?

Das ist ein schwieriges Thema. Als ich das erste Mal im Finanzministerium in Berlin war, sagte man dort sehr unhöflich zu mir: „Wann bekommen wir unser Geld zurück? Schulden sind Schulden.“ Da ist es für Griechen, deren Familien durch die Nazis zerstört wurden, zu sagen: Wenn Schulden gleich Schulden sind, dann schuldest du mir auch etwas. Hinzu kommt, neben den Reparationsforderungen, der erzwungene Kredit der Bank von Griechenland an die Wehrmacht 1942. Davon existiert sogar noch eine Kreditvereinbarung.

Aber das alles führt nur zu gegenseitigen Anschuldigungen, die uns nicht weiterhelfen. Ich denke nicht, dass junge Deutsche mit Schulden gegenüber den Griechen leben sollten und genauso wenig glaube ich, dass es gerecht ist, wenn junge Griechen ihr Land verlassen müssen. Ich glaube nicht, dass Schulden heilig sind. Niemand außerhalb von Europa glaubt das. Wären Schulden heilig, gäbe es keinen Kapitalismus. Er funktioniert nur, weil es das Prinzip der begrenzten Haftung gibt. Lasst uns unsere gegenseitigen Schulden auslöschen und nach vorneschauen.

2015 haben Sie sich gegen das Reformpaket der EU für Griechenland ausgesprochen. Wo wäre das Land heute, wenn Sie sich durchgesetzt hätten? 

Es würde Griechenland in jeder Hinsicht besser gehen. Ich habe damals zusammen mit anderen internationalen Experten die offensichtliche Lösung vorgeschlagen: nämlich die griechischen Schulden zu restrukturieren. Es war meine Pflicht, Nein zu sagen. Und alles, was aus diesem Nein hätte werden können, wäre besser als das, was wir jetzt haben. Selbst ein Grexit hätte zwar für ein paar Monate enorme Kosten gehabt, dafür würde die griechische Wirtschaft heute wieder um acht Prozent wachsen und das Land wäre schuldenfrei. Heute feiern sie in Griechenland das Ende der Krise. Aber der einzige Grund, wieso die Arbeitslosigkeit sinkt ist, dass die Leute das Land verlassen. Das ist doch absurd: Du vernichtest ein Land und dann feierst du, dass es keine Arbeitslosigkeit gibt.

Wir sprechen in Europa gerade viel über Rechtspopulisten. Sind Sie das Äquivalent der Linken?

Wenn jemand sagt, dass ich ein linker Populist bin, empfinde ich das als logischen Fehler und Beleidigung. Populismus ist für mich per Definition rechts. Ein Populist ist ein Politiker, der den Schmerz und Ärger der Menschen ausnutzt, um an die Macht zu kommen. Er hetzt eine Kultur gegen die andere auf, ein Land gegen das andere. Sobald er an der Macht ist, verbindet er ein autoritäres Regierungssystem mit ein wenig Menschenfreundlichkeit.

Jeder Linke, der das aufgreift, ist nicht links. DiEM 25 ist nicht populistisch – wir sind das größte Gegengift. In der Migrationsfrage sagen wir zum Beispiel: Lasst die Leute kommen, wir finden eine Lösung. Das ist nicht populistisch, weil es uns wirklich nicht mehr Wähler beschafft.

Ein weiteres transnationales Bündnis, das bei dieser Europawahl antritt, ist Volt. Was halten Sie von der Partei?

Als wir gehört haben, dass Volt gegründet wurde, haben wir uns gefreut. Wir waren das erste transnationale Bündnis – wir wollen mehr von ihnen. Ihr Programm ist allerdings zu allgemein. Bevor wir bei „Demokratie in Europa – DiEM 25“ um die Stimmen der Wähler gebeten haben, haben wir drei Jahre darauf verbracht, die technischen Details unseres Programms auszuarbeiten. Wir sagen nicht nur: Wir wollen ein grünes Europa. Wir sagen, wie viel es kosten soll, wo das Geld herkommt und wie es ausgegeben wird. Volt hat keine solche Politik. Die Partei ist eine leere Hülle.  

Das Interview führten Eliana Berger und Thorsten Breitkopf.
Es erschien zuerst im Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger.

Foto: Arton Krasniqi

Über Gianis Varoufakis

Gianis Varoufakis, 1961 in Athen geboren, ist in Europa am besten bekannt als ehemaliger Finanzminister des griechischen Linksbündnisses Syriza. Er hatte die Position von Januar bis Juli 2015 inne und verhandelte mit der Eurogruppe um Finanzhilfen für Griechenland. Dabei war er ein strikter Gegner der von der EU geforderten Sparmaßnahmen und geriet besonders mit seinem damaligen deutschen Amtskollegen Wolfgang Schäuble aneinander. Im Juli 2015 trat er zurück.

Der promovierte Wirtschaftswissenschaftler lehrt an der Universität in Athen. Außerdem ist er Buchautor. 2016 hat Varoufakis die transnationale Bewegung “Democracy in Europe Movement 2015” (DiEM25) mitgegründet. Bei der Europawahl am 26. Mai kandidiert er für den deutschen Wahlflügel der Bewegung. DiEM25 will die Europäische Union grundlegend reformieren. Die Bewegung setzt sich zum Beispiel für mehr transparentere Institutionen und grüne Energien ein.

 

The 42 best reasons to cast your vote this EU-election

 

All the posters and campaign ads have notified you for weeks, but now it is actually happening: the 2019 European elections kicked off yesterday. While the Spitzenkandidaten are still campaigning in several European countries, we already know the result in the Netherlands. On Sunday, it is Germany’s turn and our 42_deepthought blog team, too, will go to the polls. As passionate Europeans, we thought of our 42 favorite reasons, why you could join us. What is your motivation for casting your vote these days? Get in touch and tell us about them via twitter, instagram or facebook.

 

  1. You make the difference.
  2. It is just a simple cost-benefit calculation.
  3. It’s a small cross for you, a giant leap for… Well, you know.
  4. Btw. refusing to vote out of protest is not really a thing. There is no record of it.
  5. Voting is a privilege, not a burden. We are all damn lucky to have the right to vote.
  6. Every vote counts. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE
  7. So: Make election turnout great again!
  8. Democracy, like the European project, is not inviolable and sadly, not everybody is as big of a fan as you are.
  9. A quick crossword to remind you: One Word, six letters and it starts with a b.
  10. We are Europe. One for all and all for one. All passionate musketeers to the polls!
  11. Don’t let history repeat itself.
  12. And speaking of privileges: care about all those freedoms and advantages that the European project brought to your daily life? Go vote and support their continuation and progress.
  13. I mean, who needs borders? Travelling without a passport is way more chill.
  14. Fill out a ton of paperwork or even be restricted from working in another country?
  15. So make your cross and do not give others the right to make political decisions without taking your opinion into account.
  16. Those who engage in political discourse can bring about change.
  17. I mean, you are asked to give your opinion. On politics. And people are actually interested in what you think.
  18. Make use of your right to freedom of expression!
  19. The amount of different parties to choose from is super impressive. There is something to choose from for everybody.
  20. You determine EU politics for the next five years. No pressure.
  21. Only those who participated in voting can later have access to (the slippery and rocky road of) moral high ground where they get to criticize the administration.
  22. To reference another US election campaign: Yes, we VOTE!
  23. Europe equals liberty.
  24. For those who vote via mail (at least in Germany): finally a really cool letter will arrive at your mailbox besides all the bills and ads. And you will send a fancy red letter off.
  25. You know, there is a fair chance it might turn into a howler if you don’t use it to cast your vote…
  26. Finally, something you can easily mark off your to-do list.
  27. Also drawing crosses is fun.
  28. Karma. Nobody wants to be reborn as a cockroach.
  29. (And yes,) going to the polls this election Sunday will actually count as physical exercise. So get those steps in!
  30. Maybe it’ll be a sunny day. Even more reason to treat yourself for ice cream after you successfully cast your vote.
  31. It is definitely the absolute best reason to feel good about yourself and spent the rest of the day in bed and chill.
  32. Or if you are interested, go watch how volunteers count the votes after 6 pm on Sunday. It’s a public vote
  33. Maybe you meet your true love when going to the polls: take your chances.
  34. It is the best way to express your discontent.
  35. But you can also show your support for a party’s policies.
  36. There is no minimum of votes for parties to enter the European Parliament. You might make the difference to secure seats for one of the many small parties up for election.
  37. Voting for Europe is a pretty elegant way to stop nationalist and eurosceptic influences. You won’t let them decide the fate of Europe.
  38. Did I mention BREXIT?! Democracy survives on the engagement of its citizens, people – so get involved.
  39. The European Parliament is the only directly and democratically elected body of the European Union. Support European democracy with your vote.
  40. If you live in your hometown, this is your chance to stop by your old school.
  41. How about an election party afterwards? We are all in!
  42. And finally: Just because!

 

Editorial N° 3

Dear readers,

 

Send an e-mail and it will reach the moon in just a few seconds. But a postcard will often only arrive at its destination after a week. Communication is easy nowadays; e-mails and WhatsApp move via electromagnetic waves at lightning speed – making the mailman seem incredibly slow in comparison. The internet is a communication technology that shapes our everyday life. We stumble upon new information before witnessing it through more traditional media like the evening news or morning newspaper. But who can guarantee that the flood of information that we are exposed to stems from verified sources and explains issues in their proper context? In an interview, the physicist and science journalist Ranga Yogeshwar demands a public debate to determine who is supposed to filter the mass of information. In ten interviews, the experts of this issue discuss the repercussions of digital transformation on our societies.

According to media scientist Norbert Bolz, the digital transformation is one of the three deep breaks within the history of media. It has reached all levels: from the app that allows us to order food from our favourite restaurant, to international conflicts that are now being carried out in cyberspace. The phenomena of the digital transformation are often far-reaching, but not always obvious. In his interview with 42 Magazine, the economist Philipp Hergovich emphasises the benefits of online dating. According to Hergovich, dating platforms like Tinder make society more liberal by connecting people from all different kinds of socio-economic backgrounds.

42 Magazine has also been impacted by digital change, and since September, you can find us at fortytwomagazine.com. Our webmaster Frederik Junge is credited with the new look and feel of our website. We also welcome our new head of translations Eva Fürst, and PR manager Judith Ponwitz, who both joined us earlier this year to support our international team. As part of our artist cooperation with photographer Max Dauven, we are pleased to present his work, which seems to be made digitally but is produced through analogue processes like negative photomontage. His photographs connect the digital with the analogue world, and are reminiscent of the balancing act we also have to accomplish in our personal lives.

I hope you will gain new insights and enjoy reading 42 Magazine.

Sincerely,

Lena Kronenbürger

Lena Kronenbürger
Editor-in-chief, 42 magazine

 

Cover: Louis Lehmann

“Even the very best academic, the most critical journalist can be manipulated”

0 1 #2 Detail © Max Dauven

How do we distinguish relevant from irrelevant information? In his interview with 42 Magazine, science journalist Ranga Yogeshwar talks about the overflow of information and why it is important to filter it. He calls for the disclosure of algorithms while simultaneously pointing out the positive sides of digital transformation and suggests that its benefits should be used beyond economic ends.

 


 

Mister Yogeshwar – as a physicist and science journalist, you must often find yourself at the source of research and innovation. When did you first notice how rapidly digital transformation was changing our lives?

I started programming very early on. I built my first computer in the late seventies. I think I was one of the first people in Germany who could send e-mails. The problem was that hardly anyone had an e-mail account back then. That was when I realised that the internet was going to change the grammar of communication.

So are we in the middle of a revolution?

We are at the beginning of a revolution and its consequences are not entirely predictable yet. When printing was invented, we were suddenly able to reproduce communication. Fundamentally, that was what enabled Martin Luther’s Reformation. It wouldn’t have been possible without the invention of printing. So when the internet came along, it was no surprise that this new communication technology had a huge potential to change how we interact as a society.

What sort of change are you thinking of in particular?

A simple example: right now, we are doing an interview. Later, this interview will be published as a text. It is not clear if this will be the same in fifteen years. Even today, there are new technologies, for example intelligent assistants, who use speech as a source of direct input instead of written text. On the book market, audiobook sales rival those of traditional books. When people have a problem with a device and need a manual, they watch a YouTube video. There is a possibility, incredible as it may sound, that we are becoming a post-text society – that within 20-30 years, we may be establishing a culture in which the written word as we know it will be replaced – by speech, by videos, maybe by something else entirely.

Isn’t the idea of a post-text society, of a culture without text or writing, a little far-fetched?

It does seem far-fetched. But thinking about it bears an important potential: for example, as the world becomes more and more complex, we are noticing that the intersection of man-machine-interface is becoming increasingly simple. You needed a whole manual to use the first telephones. Today, interfaces are designed to be intuitive. In a way, they can reveal their own virtual grammar. It is possible that this trend will continue.

What does that mean for the individual?

Of course there are intellectual consequences. The development of language, written and spoken language, was the instrument of enlightenment. When you write, you distil your thoughts by arranging them in writing. Writing is a vehicle – not just of communication, but also of reflection. What happens when most people stop reading and watch videos or talk to devices instead, is unpredictable.

What effects could this development have on society?

On the one hand, the articulation of the individual through language, through writing, is something phenomenally simple. On the other hand, it is phenomenally complicated. Reading means deciphering a code – letters – and that means a lot of work. It is much easier if a device does the job for you or if someone shows you a video. But language is part of a thinking society. In some areas, we may even see a renaissance of the written word. My concern is that society will be divided into a small group of people who will write, maybe program, maybe design – and a huge group of people who will simply consume, won’t write anymore, but will only listen.

… and won’t think anymore?

And will think differently, maybe. One-hundred years ago, greater access to information enabled the expansion of democracy. Censorship meant that the flow of information was cut off and information was held back from the public. Of course, that wasn’t good. But today, the situation has reversed and there is an overflow of information. This is a big disadvantage, because as we see more information, it becomes a sea of information, an ocean, even: It becomes harder and harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information.

Social media profits from showing users wrong information”

 

What role does social media play in this overflow of information?

The business model of a social network is to operate so that users will stay in their ecosystem for as long as possible, so that they can show them as many ads as they can. We know from research that the appeal of loud content, maybe even fake news, is very high. This means that social media profits from showing users wrong information. A specific example from an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) study: A fake post on Twitter will reach 1500 people six times faster than a true story. The result is that we experience a peculiar agitation in the media that doesn’t always go hand in hand with the truth. In the past, the procurement of information was the problem – in the future, it will be the filtering of information, the distillment to relevance or significance.

Who will be responsible for developing these information filters?

That is an interesting and very current debate. If you followed Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing in April 2018, you could sense the same question hanging in the air, although it wasn’t answered. But implicitly, Zuckerberg said that in the future, he would be able to detect and delete fake news automatically, to identify terrorist groups, to potentially carry out the whole process of filtering information – all with the help of artificial intelligence.

But this statement was never questioned. Could a social network that connects more than two billion people worldwide become a censor? What consequences would that have for different cultures? The things you can say in the US; you aren’t always allowed to say in Germany. The situation is different again in countries like Egypt or China.

“In the past, the procurement of information was the problem. In the future, it will be the filtering of information”

 

What would such a regulation look like in Germany for example?

In Germany, you could establish a government authority. But that would be dangerous because as a result, you would create an apparatus of censorship. Maybe we would need an independent authority? The public-service broadcasters? What criteria should be used to filter? Who defines what is and isn’t fake news? What mechanisms can ensure that we will allow correct information in the future? Even when it supports a position outside the mainstream? We need to have this debate.

Do you think that politicians and political scholars are aware of the relevance of the debate you demand?

No, politicians aren’t aware of the debate’s relevance at all. So much was obvious during Zuckerberg’s hearing. The total lack of awareness in politics was remarkable. There were obviously people in the room who didn’t even have a Facebook account and had a peculiar view of social media as a result. Unfortunately, this meant that they weren’t able to ask the really important questions. Nobody asked or stated what criteria the algorithms are based on. Or about the phenomenon of the echo chamber. If economic reasons can increase fake news, that can have a tangible influence on society and could even decide a political vote.

So if politicians shouldn’t be responsible for the correct use of data, do we need an independent organisation for that?

The internet and social media confront us with the same sort of questions that the invention of printing did. At first, there was an uncontrolled growth. Then Rome stepped in and censorship was established, with all its resulting consequences. Basically, this happened because Rome claimed that people were publishing lies. We have to learn from that and take a stand. There must be no institution that controls the flow of information based on political interest. On the other hand, it is a political task to establish an independent body that does just that.

What would you suggest?

There are a number of possibilities. A censor is one of them. You could approach the problem from the legal side and toughen the laws regarding fake news. If an institution published a piece of news that could have disastrous consequences and might be misused politically, they would be punished for that. It is slowly becoming clear that the uncontrolled growth – that unlimited, unfiltered information – isn’t viable anymore.

In your opinion, where should we draw the line?

There are already a lot of good laws. We have to be clear on the fact that the internet and social networks reverse the flow of the media. Mass media has become the media of the masses. Individuals can suddenly become mass media. We have established words like “influencer”, individuals who have so many “followers”, that they, in the truest sense of the word, influence people. In traditional press laws, there is a clear separation between advertising and content. Advertising has to be clearly marked. Many “influencers” are in fact more like infomercials. That has to be made absolutely clear.

How does the digital space change the relationship between media and consumer?

In the future, we will not only have to talk about media in the traditional sense. We will also have to talk about the traces that the use of digital content leaves. In the past, when we read a book, we did it on our own on a green lawn. Today, everything we read electronically is logged. In other words: the book reads us. Everyone who reads this article in its published form reveals their own data while reading.

None of that has been sufficiently settled in legal terms yet. On top of that, we have noticed that, similarly to advertising, we can gather political stances through “targeting”. Just as it is possible to persuade someone to buy something, it is possible to persuade them to vote for someone. For the first time in history, we are experiencing the confrontation between the public and an enormously powerful machinery capable of manipulation. A couple of people might say: “That will never happen.” And I think that is a huge mistake. Even the best academic, the most critical journalist has to be aware that they can be manipulated.

How dangerous is our digital infrastructure when even critical minds can be manipulated?

There is a Facebook experiment that was only mentioned briefly during the Senate hearing. Facebook tested what would happen if they put positive or largely negative content in a user’s news feed. So, we are not just talking about intellectual manipulation, we are talking about emotional manipulation. This experiment, which has only been dealt with on a surface level, has enormous potential. There is a huge danger that manipulation will not remain limited to consuming. It is also misused by nations that, due to their digital infrastructure, can evaluate their citizens in no time at all. China is already trying it. It is now possible to control citizens completely. It is vital that we understand that. The digital infrastructure offers great opportunities but is also an extremely dangerous breeding ground for dictators and authoritarian systems. This is a danger we have to be aware of.

We might soon able to predict human behaviour with the help of technical tools. What would that mean in this context?

Yes, “predicting” is one of the next steps. Advertising tries to influence people but at the moment, there is no way of knowing if such manipulation works. If they can anticipate the next step, advertisers will have a much stronger hold on the consumer. “Predicting” is already used extensively in other areas, because it’s not just about ads that you click on. When you write a message, your mobile phone suggests words you might use next. If you take a closer look, the suggestions aren’t half bad. In a couple of years, through machine learning, the software will have a pretty precise idea of what you will write next. Precise predictions of your behaviour are the next step. When that time comes, we will need a new term. Not “I would like” but “I am made to like”.

What consequences would that have?

Everyone can ask themselves today: Why did I buy this jumper? Why did I book this holiday? Often, when we really think about it, we realise that an ad or an influencer led us to this decision. An artificial desire was increased. That’s the same as before. The difference is that today, we are able to execute this process individually, due to gigantic mechanical support. Today, there is a form of control that isn’t as obvious as it used to be. I remember how it used to be in the Soviet Union: There were huge loudspeakers, and each morning a radio programme was broadcast across the streets. Everyone knew: this is propaganda. Unfortunately, today’s propaganda isn’t as obvious.

“Communication is more than a business model”

 

With that in mind, is it time to recognise the more positive sides of digital transformation?

Well, first of all, the digital development in the early phases of the internet was largely driven by economic factors. If you talk to a company in Silicon Valley, the question is always the same: “What’s the business model?”. Every action, each one of the countless apps, the social networks, the search engines, the video platforms – at their core, they are all economic models with the goal to earn money. It is slowly time to realise that communication is more than a business model.

If that becomes clear, we might see that there are more degrees of freedom. And we even know of some! Wikipedia is an example. Wikipedia is a model where the sense of community is central; where people try to make knowledge accessible together. There are many initiatives that serve the public good instead of the advancement of an individual. Maybe it is time to change tack and to say: “We have the chance to use the benefits of digital culture for something beyond economic means.”

And second of all?

The cost of a product’s reproduction, the terminal costs, are reduced to a minimum in the digital space. If I write a text today and share it online, the costs are close to zero. That means, we are developing into a culture where traditional economic entities dissolve. In some areas, we are approaching a world of no terminal costs. That would be a kind of ideal and the internet would really become an asset for many.

Nevertheless, there are many sceptics…

…who say, for example, we should stay clear of social networks completely. But I think that’s the wrong approach, because they have an enormous potential. As with many other technologies, there is a period of adjustment here. Right now, we don’t have many rules, and we are just starting to ask the question who should establish them. If you ask me, it is the responsibility of the state. Just like over a hundred years ago, when cars started to appear on our roads and we realised: we can’t go on like this. We need traffic rules, we need road signs, we need traffic lights. It was the state’s responsibility then. It should be the same here.

In your opinion, what needs to be done?

We are starting to create the necessary conditions. The awareness that we need to do more than we did in the past is definitely there. For example, when it comes to the monopolisation of the digital space: Today, the motto is “The winner takes it all”. The consequence is that there is only one big search engine, namely Google – and just one big social network – Facebook. In business, we have the cartel law. It’s time to apply it to digital spaces as well. My personal opinion is that algorithms should be disclosed when they gain a certain level of relevance. In a democratic society, we cannot allow streams of information to be controlled by a private company in a non-transparent way.

Interview: Katharina Tesch

Translation: Elisabeth Lewerenz

 

 

digital-transformation-and-information

 

Ranga Yogeshwar is a physicist, science journalist, author and presenter. In his book “Nächste Ausfahrt Zukunft” (“Next Exit: the Future”), published in October 2017, he deals with the digital revolution and the effects of artificial intelligence.

“He who controls the algorithm has the power”

Grauverlauf #1 © Max Dauven

The digital transformation has given rise to platform companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Deliveroo. Although they present themselves as mere intermediaries between supply and demand of services, they also engage in the large-scale aggregation and mining of data produced by workers and consumers alike. Dr Karen Gregory, lecturer in Digital Sociology, explains how these companies operate, how they have changed the nature of work, and finally, what they are really up to.

 


 

This year marks the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. Let us assume that the old man strolls about the streets of today’s London and encounters an Uber driver, a Deliveroo rider, and a TaskRabbit worker. What would his thoughts be?

I think he would ask the same questions that he did in his time and think about working conditions. One thing that Marx would immediately be aware of, is that this is a form of labour – and not a new one. Cities have always been places that gave rise to complex divisions of labour. Seeing someone like a Deliveroo rider, or TaskRabbiter, or an Uber driver would probably not have been that much of a surprise to him. Markets have always created spaces for new forms of work. In cities there have always been people who deliver food, take in lodgers, and transport other people. In some ways this would not surprise Marx that much. Moreover, these people are often working in dangerous, unprotected, and unorganised conditions, similar to the workers in his own time.

However, I think he would be curious to learn that these workers are not given the designation of an employee: The companies organising these new forms of work do not recognise these workers as workers. Marx might even be a bit shocked that there are people doing jobs that are clearly value-creating but have been excluded from the category of “worker”.

Could you unpack that a little bit? In which ways has the emergence of these digital platforms changed the traditional roles of employers and employees?

I don’t think we can say that platforms like Airbnb, Uber, and TaskRabbit are responsible for a changing relationship around work contracts. These platforms are the logical extension of phenomena that have been happening for thirty, forty, or even fifty years. We are talking about a long trajectory of outsourcing labour, increasingly precarious work, casualising work itself and also privatising work and pushing the responsibility for work back on to workers. Some scholars talk about the demutualisation of work, meaning that the employer and the employee do not have a mutual relationship anymore. However, that is not really a new thing and is many years in the making, already. This development is also related to the decrease in unionised and organised worker power. All these factors have created a situation where a company like Uber can “disrupt the market” and set itself up as just a broker for labour rather than having to call itself an employer.

Why are platform workers not represented by trade unions? Traditionally it would be their role to protect workers’ rights. Where are the trade unions in all of this?

The fact that platforms specifically claim that they are not employers is provoking a number of legal battles. In the absence of the designation of employees, workers do not have the rights to organise. However, this does not mean that people are not organising at all. There are institutions like the IWJB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain) or the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) that do not consider themselves as formal trade unions in the proper sense. They see themselves as worker-organising entities. Their goal is to organise and to agitate towards direct action. These informal organisations are making tremendous progress in the Uber and Deliveroo world. Most Deliveroo workers I have spoken to know about labour organising or are involved themselves.

It is a bifurcated situation where the formal trade unions have not quite gotten into the whole issue, but there are certainly a lot of activities happening. Workers have been on strike in Bristol and in London. We have seen nascent organising in Edinburgh. Wherever the platform economy has shown up, there has been an unrest among the workers. The narrative around the platform of capitalism is preceding it now. People who sign up for Airbnb or became Deliveroo riders are aware of the labour problems of this business model even if they are not interested in organising themselves.

Could you elaborate on the term “platform capitalism”?

Platform capitalism is a rather new sociotechnical arrangement that is – as some scholars would put it – acting as an intermediary. It allows groups of people to meet: “Would you like to buy my service? I would like to sell my service”, so we are simply using this platform, which is a website, a database or a forum to make that possible. A platform is a multisided market, that allows multiple groups to come to a specific place to trade with one another. At first glance that sounds very simple. However, the ramifications of doing business through this digital multisided market are quite complicated. It changes how we consume, how we produce, how we work, how we will be visible as workers – if at all – and how we get paid. The other side of platform capitalism is that companies claim to be mere platforms and thus have no responsibility for the social effects of their doings. At the same time, they have a tendency of becoming monopolies and there in lies the tension.

That sounds like platform companies do not create any new jobs but rather reorganise and manage demand and supply of services. Why are they so valuable?

Platform companies are particularly valuable because they attract venture capitalists, not only because of the companies’ potential growth, but also because they are data aggregating systems. Everyone has heard the phrase that data is the new oil. What all these platforms are doing, regardless of whether they are delivering your food or helping to clean your house, is not only to aggregate data but also to generate new forms of data that have not existed before. Airbnb, for instance, has one of the world’s largest databases of interior photographs. That is valuable to advertisers, architects, and city planners.

If a company like Uber, Airbnb or Deliveroo goes bust tomorrow, it will still be valuable to civic and urban infrastructures because they will have data that cities want and need. Uber data, for example, is often relied on for making inferences about city traffic or even metro planning. The metro of Washington DC has consulted Uber data in order to understand what happens when the metro collapses. Thus, these platforms should primarily be thought of as data aggregators.

What are they doing with this data?

I think their long-term vision is that this data will help to build the so-called “smart city.” As city governance increasingly starts to look at data driven initiatives, these companies will be the people holding that information. Uber does not necessarily want to be voted into a city council. They do not want to be a utility, something you would have control over. They are aiming for soft power in cities which will allow them to set agendas and establish themselves as private owners of aggregated data.

At least we are really starting to see that platforms have an interest in understanding the future of cities. One of Deliveroo’s recent pitch decks, these decks that you would take to an advertiser or potential investor, lays out the future vision of the company. They claim that they will have infinite amounts of data on food consumption, food delivery, and basic eating patterns in cities. Their long-term vision is to control the entire chain of logistics: how food is generated and how it arrives at your place. It is a grand vision indeed.

That is a dystopian vision, isn’t it?

Definitely. And one that is actively trying to build itself in the absence of any kind of democratic or transparent politics. We are not only talking about the diminished agency and quality of life for workers. We are also talking about real long-term investments in city planning with actors who are not democratically oriented.

Since your research focuses on Deliveroo at the moment, could you give us some more insight into what they are doing?

Deliveroo is essentially a data science company. It is very interested in your consumption patterns: the time you ordered, what you ordered, how much you ordered. The whole business model relies on an algorithm that deploys workers when they are needed and removes them when they are not. In fact, if you talk to Deliveroo riders, their biggest complaint is that there is no transparency. They do not understand how the company is functioning and how the algorithms work that govern their lives.

On some day there are jobs, on others there are none. Nothing is predictable. The company keeps tweaking and changing how it operates. The one thing I took away from interviews with Deliveroo riders is that from their perspective the company actually sounds like a scam. It sounds like a chaotic, fly-by-night pop-up shop that you would not sign up for in any way. However, from the perspective of the consumer side it is obviously convenient. You can download this app and five minutes later you can order food from any restaurant and it is going to arrive at your door. I think the trade-off for your data is what is driving a large proportion of the digital economy. If you thought about it, you might not want the company to have your data, but you definitely want that cheeseburger and you would prefer it to be convenient and easy.

The companies portray these platforms as impartial extensions of the free market. But the question is of course: Who has the power? A platform cannot hire and fire people. The Deliveroo riders of Cologne recently tried to establish a work council. What happened then was that the work contracts of all the involved riders were miraculously discontinued. Who is responsible for that? An algorithm?

The case you mentioned is not the first time that organising Deliveroo riders have just suddenly been dismissed – or deleted – from the app. There is no transparency around the algorithm or what is actually driving management decisions. That is very stressful for workers day-to-day, because you cannot plan on anything. You do not know whether you are going to make money that day or not, whether it is worth going out. It is hard to plan your life around that kind of inconsistent income.

On top of that, it only takes a couple of people around you to be deleted for you to start worrying. Am I doing a good job? Are these decisions based on job performance? Or is it the algorithm that suddenly decided that it just does not need the people? Have I done something wrong? Can this app actually access things on my phone where I have criticised the company in an e-mail? All this creates stress, but also paranoia because the workers do not and cannot understand the rules of the game.

This insecurity is the reason why the whole sector is often called the “gig economy”. The phrase suggests a form of work that takes place occasionally and is typically not the worker’s primary income. Is that the case?

Recent surveys suggest that most platform workers are not entirely relying on income made through the platform. However, that does not mean that they are not relying on that source of income. They often have multiple part-time jobs. In Edinburgh, there is a clear bifurcation. On the one hand, there are student labourers, which I think most people are not paying attention to. These are young people and they do not necessarily think through the risks they are undertaking. Being rider for Deliveroo may seem like a great job when you are riding your bike anyway.

They tend not to see it as work and are not particularly worried about getting hit by a car. One may call it “the exploitation of an eighteen-year-old person’s interest in being healthy, fit, and attractive”. On the other hand, there are people who are really struggling and that are fully dependent on these platforms. However, for these companies, the ideal worker is someone who does not need a job, and that is highly problematic. This also makes the organisation very challenging, because only a part of the work force is in a desperate situation. A good portion of the people would say: “I don’t want this to be regulated, I don’t want to be called an employee, I just want to hop on my bike and make twenty-five pounds when I want it.”

“What does it really look like to have nothing but a gig economy running things? From my perspective, that looks like chaos”

 

The companies thus rightfully argue that many platform workers actually appreciate that freedom. Technically, most of them are self-employed. But are they really? And what about social security?

This is an intractable problem. We are either going to decide that these platforms need a form of state regulation and that the status of the employees is actually bogus self-employment. That would mean that these people are workers and that companies owe them higher wages, pensions systems, and sick pay. On the other hand, there could be a continued push that the notion of this free market, flexible worker wins out. The long-term problem with that is social security. What does it really look like to have nothing but a gig economy running things? From my perspective, that looks like chaos. I just do not believe it to be a sustainable model. Imagine the health care sector, for example, reshaped as a platform. An NHS (National Health Service) according to the gig economy model sounds to me like a lot of people dying.

Being technically self-employed, platform workers are also responsible for their own hardware. Uber drivers have to provide their own cars. Deliveroo riders have to maintain their own bikes. If we return to Marx, the irony of the situation is that, in a way, these workers do own the means of production. Is that not a form of empowerment?

We have to ask where to locate the real value of these companies. Investment is not flowing into Deliveroo or AirBnB because they deliver food and allow people to rent living space. It is because they are also data aggregators. He who controls the algorithm and the data science has more power in a work relationship than the person actually doing the labour.You can be the best craftsman or the best bike rider, but that will not help you if you are subject to a whole new form of management which is entangled in data science, and you cannot understand or even access the algorithm. There are no choices of opting in or out. That also applies to consumers. Maybe you still want to use the service, but would you not want to have more control over the variables that you offer up? None of that is on the table for consumers or workers. You can either hand over all your data or not use the service. There is definitely more going on than just the bike riders on the street and a lot of it is completely obscure and proprietary.

“What you need is a sense that what is creating value is not just your own embodied“

 

Does that mean that both workers and consumers will have to acquire a basic understanding of data science in order to regain control?

You do not necessarily have to be a data scientist to understand all that. What you do need is a sense that what is creating value is not just your own embodied labour. You have to understand that you are generating data yourself by simply riding a bike. It may appear that you are simply delivering pizza to a customer. However, you have had this app on your phone the entire time and what you really have been doing is mapping the city for Deliveroo. You are teaching the algorithm how to maximise profit. People have to be able to see those data infrastructures in order to ask good questions about them. They should be transparent in a civic society. We have lived through the process of building a digital economy, and we take it for granted that companies have proprietary resources that we do not have access to. However, I think we should really regard these algorithms as something we have the right to look at, to critique, and make choices about.

So far we have talked about the negative effects of the digital transformation on work. What are the good sides and what possibilities do they offer?

We have to remember that the internet itself was born of incredible enthusiasm for access, participation, and non-hierarchical networks. That also applies to many of the newly emerged platforms. Airbnb, for instance, comes out of the couch surfing movement, where people were excited about new forms of sharing and peer-to-peer production. The sharing economy, in the original sense, could open up new ways of sustainable consumption and production. With it comes the narrative that sharing might equal more sustainability or more equitable social practices – and fair enough, those are great ideas.

If we look at the precursors of some of these platforms we can see that they really created new and interesting arrangements. However, once venture capital flows into something that subsequently needs to scale and actively desires a monopoly, we are no longer in a simple sharing or barter economy. We are looking at new, sophisticated financial instruments for extracting profit from both people and cities. The positive aspects of the digital economy open themselves up to exploitation almost immediately. The capital is much faster than we are. If it sees a chance to make money and create new markets, it does so. We find ourselves in a kind of contradiction: The digital transformation could change the way we life and work for the better, but instead we are now deeply entangled in a new nefarious capitalism.

Interview: Jonas Hermann

Translation: Hannah Riegert-Wirtz

 

 

Digital-Transformation-and-Employment

Dr Karen Gregory is a lecturer of Digital Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research is mainly concerned with the digital economy and its effects on society. Recently, she has been conducting interviews with Deliveroo riders in Edinburgh about their work experience.

“Intelligence as such is not interested in the concept of domination”

 

Should we be wary of Artificial Intelligence? In this interview with 42 Magazine, Professor Robert Trappl shares his understandings of the interplay of rationality and emotions, a possible cohabit of humans and machines, and provides some reasons for optimism.

 


 

Prof. Dr Trappl – Are there any misconceptions about Artificial Intelligence that you would like to clear up?

I would like to clarify the common misconception that the further development of Artificial Intelligence comes along with the risk of a superintelligence, an intelligence which accedes to world domination and enslaves human kind or eliminates humans entirely. I do not believe this, despite the fact that this position is represented by people like Elon Musik or Stephen Hawking, who are by all means competent in other domains.

Why do you have doubts about the notion of a hostile superintelligence?

The term superintelligence awards intelligence with an uncharacteristic feature, namely intention. First of all, intelligence describes the effort to solve problems and to survive in an often unpredictable environment. Motives and associated ambitions – of course adapted to the respective living environment – emanate from us humans, from a different system. Intelligence as such, however, is not interested in the concept of domination. Nevertheless, at the moment we are working on the modelling of personalities at the OFAI, the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence. I do not want to entirely rule out that such a simulation of personalities might some day become problematic for human kind.

“First of all, intelligence describes the effort to solve problems and to survive in an often unpredictable environment”

 

How does the relationship between humans and machines evolve alongside the increasing embodiment of Artificial Intelligence?

Let me give you an example: David Levy’s book “Love and Sex with Robots”, sketches a future in which it is possible to get married to robots. Because I was inquisitive I studied the Austrian marriage law. According to the law, robots were in no way excluded from becoming a marriage partner. However, the marriage law requires both partners to be at least sixteen years of age. And who wants to marry a sixteen-year-old robot? Another book, published in the 1980s, which discusses interesting approaches to this topic is “The Intimate Machine” by Neil Frude.

According to this book, robots need to be unpredictable to a certain degree in order to remain of interest, which means they need to have the human factor, so to say. The algorithms of online dating agencies are based on a similar principle, because they search for partners as similar as possible, whose small differences illustrate a particular charm. The adventure of meeting someone by accident is replaced by a systematic partner choice based on similarities. From there the ability to arbitrate between humans and robots is not too far away.

The age of Artificial Intelligence has often been proclaimed in the past, but has not occurred thus far. What is different this time?

By now, the necessary steps in technological development have been made, something which humans now come to recognise. The defeat of Gari Kasparow by the IBM-Computer Deep Blue in a game of chess in 1997 was predictable, because the development of computing power followed Moore’s Law, and hence always doubled in a time span of 12 to 24 months. The defeat of the world’s best GO-player Lee Sedol by the program “Alpha GO” has however baffled experts. In this instance, the principles of “Deep Learning” have been used effectively in public for the first time. Deep Learning is a subsection of Machine Learning and combines large quantities of data with those structures of neuronal networks we know from the human brain. Through this network structure, the system is able to link the newly learnt information to new contents like an algorithm, and in this way, it can autonomously enhance itself. Even though these approaches had already been employed in the 70s and 80s, they could not perform to their full potential, because computers back then were not fast enough and had neither sufficient memory nor a connection to the internet.

The possibilities of Deep Learning lead people to think: “this poses a real danger”, because machines and algorithms can effectively replace manpower in the long run. And indeed, many jobs become superfluous – interestingly enough not so much on the part of workers and craftspeople, as was expected, but more on the part of office staff. When you enter a bank nowadays, almost no one is sitting inside. Those job positions simply do not exist anymore. That is of course weird. Forecasts like the one of the management consultancy McKinsey International expect that about 40-50 per cent of all jobs could possibly be replaced due to the digital shift.

Admittedly, the substance of such forecasts can fluctuate strongly over time. In its entirety, what you have just described thus puts emphasis on the fact that the digital transformation initiates a change in the working world.

Absolutely, but everyone agrees that something disruptive is about to happen. The evolution of digital transformation, meaning the increased computing power and the extent of networking, are all developments which have made the topic of Artificial Intelligence tangible.

In terms of Deep Learning: Alan Turing had already developed the idea of the „Child Machine“: a basic algorithm capable of learning autonomously. Does this mean that prospective AI will undergo a process of growth, similar to that of a child?

At present we are working on two projects which investigate how children learn to speak by interacting with their environment. These projects contribute a great deal to our research about how one can teach a robot to do certain kinds of work, such as fixing a car engine. In order for this to work, we need to establish a shared vocabulary, so that humans and machines can effectively interact with each other. This vocabulary can then be expanded, for example by presenting a robot with things while saying: “This is a tube, as opposed to a pipe”. Like this, a robot is able to understand relations and apply instructions, similar to an apprentice or a child. It is certainly a more complex task than one might think, but it is possible.

The development of Augmented Personality or Augmented Reality can already be clearly felt, for my smartphone is nothing else than an extension of myself, only that the interface of a finger on a touchscreen is still relatively simple.

Yes, that is right, but the technology is constantly being improved. We are, however, far from what we see in science fiction films. The notion that we can download our self in the form of a brain-program in the future is in a certain sense an illusion, because in our brain, “Hardware” and “Software” are inseparable, they are sometimes even called “Wetware”. Hence, you cannot download anything from there. This stands in contrast to a computer, of which we know: when I have this or that composition of the hardware and this kind of operating system, I can load any desired program onto it. We as humans do not have such things. This vision does not seem to be attainable at the moment, but who knows what it will be like in 50 years.

“I believe we have made a big mistake in AI-research by treating intelligence as rational processing while neglecting emotions”

 

Now, research has shown that we also need emotional intelligence in order to make successful decisions. What are your thoughts on this?

I believe we have made a big mistake in AI-research by treating intelligence as rational processing while neglecting emotions. Since at least the mid-1990s, we have known that less emotional people tend to have problems making rational decisions. The original idea of viewing rationality and emotionality as polar opposites is therefore wrong, since they mutually define each other for a variety of reasons.

Not only in the field of communication, where interpersonal relations are incredibly important, but also in recalling memory contents, especially when the contents are emotionally charged, in which case the most emotionally charged will be preferably retrieved from episodic memory. Hence, when we think of Artificial Intelligence we cannot get past emotionality. As of yet, computers most likely do not have emotions. But what they are quite good at is to recognise, process and express emotions. This is comparable to an actor, who does not necessarily feel the emotions he displays outwardly. He acts and simulates, and this is something that computers, robots, Synthetic Actors are increasingly good at.

Is it hence possible that relationships and understanding as between humans will similarly develop between humans and machines?

To be honest, I do not know. But I believe that a lot is possible in this regard. For humans already love objects which do not have any kind of intelligence – for example simulated animal life. It started with “Paro”, the robot-seal, which was followed by “Aibo”, the robot-dog. The dog, however, rather constitutes a counter-example. Robots made of metal or plastic cannot be touched the same pleasant way that fur can be touched, not even fake fur. I cannot rule out that there will some day be a robot that has such a thing as a sense of self.

There is already the notion that robots have some form of awareness, like a predecessor of consciousness, because they know where they are and where they should go. Thus, they command a representation of their surroundings, or else they would constantly bump into something. However, they most likely do not command an actual consciousness yet. But perhaps this will happen some day. Maybe robots will need something like a consciousness in the future because they won’t be able to do certain tasks any other way. Far more than 90 per cent of our actions happen subconsciously, but we have learnt most of them once before. In that moment, we consciously saved them, and robots may function in the same way.

We are so enthusiastic in seeing only the dangers!“

 

Are there cultural differences in the way robots and Artificial Intelligence are accepted or rather dealt with?

Yes, there are. Germans – as well as Austrians – are globally the most sceptical about technologies due to the high technology that has been used during the Second World War in the concentration camps to murder human beings. When renowned scientists, for example from the field of AI, come to Germany, the dangers and horrors associated with technology are oftentimes exclusively dealt with. We are so enthusiastic in seeing only the dangers! This stands in stark contrast to other nations, which tend to view technology in a more positive light, and for example say about cars: “Sure, humans have died from them, but cars have also significantly increased the degree of mobility.” Germany is at present caught in a way of thinking which I cannot comprehend. I would like to tell you quite clearly that Germany and Austria run into the danger of falling behind technologically. In Japan, for instance, the relationship to technology is completely different.

Over there, robots used for nursing care are much more accepted because it is embarrassing to show weakness. To lie in the hospital bed and be taken care of by a robot is hence much less unpleasant for the patient than to be taken care of by a real person. Over here one would say: “The health insurance wants to save money and therefore sends a robot to take care of me, whereas I would have liked to be taken care of by Miss XY, with whom I am able to talk about the weather.” In this situation, nobody is right or wrong, it is simply a matter of cultural differences in dealing with technology. I was surprised that one of the most well-known Japanese researchers of robots has written a book with the title “The Buddha in the Robot”.

If someone from the Catholic Church talked of “Christ as a Robot”, it would be seen as pure blasphemy. I recently had fun giving a lecture about the “Robot Deus” as a reaction to Harari’s book “Homo Deus”. Everyone says that the robot is about to become the Lord of the World, so we should develop a theology of the prospective robot-god early enough. This idea was already practically implemented in Silicon Valley, where Anthony Levandowski has founded the new church “Way of the Future”, which positions Artificial Intelligence at the centre of its religious practices.

You are obviously not afraid of a future in which Artificial Intelligence plays an increasingly important role in society. Where does your optimism come from?

My personal history certainly is one reason. I was born in 1939 and have hence consciously experienced the Second World War as well as the reconstruction. Our lives have improved enormously through technological advances; they have brought incredible benefits. We live longer and under better conditions, we do not have to freeze anymore in the winter, we work less and always carry the Encyclopedia Britannica with us in our smartphone. This does not mean that each technical innovation should be welcomed in a completely unbiased way. One should also be sceptical and critically question the effects of new technologies, something that becomes clear when looking at the phenomenon of Fake News. But nowadays a majority of people in Central Europe already live under paradisiac circumstances. The people who do not recognise this, I am afraid, do not have historical awareness.

What do you think poses more of a threat to our future, humans or Artificial Intelligence?

Since the election of Donald Trump I am pretty sure that humans pose more of a threat. In my opinion, Artificial Intelligence does not pose a threat at the present time.

What role can Artificial Intelligence play in the positive development of our society?

In the ideal case we all work even less and enjoy life even more. I can definitely imagine that that which creates personal and physical connections will gain greater importance, when we have more time and are able to use this time positively. My prognosis is: More free time, more independence, more focus on the emotional, on the artistic, on personality and literature. I think art and creativeness will have an even greater importance than they do now. This opens up infinite possibilities for us. Personally, I find it desirable to be exempted from drudgery, if this does not lead one to suffer financial losses.

What further steps are necessary in order to realise this potential with regard to Artificial Intelligence and robotics?

I think the pejorative manner in which mathematics and informatics are sometimes talked about needs to be changed. What we need is a change of mindset to be able to see the beauty and the aesthetics of abstract things. A mathematical formula, for instance, can be perceived as beautiful and intuitively correct without knowing its derivation. Of course one should not create a formula only with regard to aesthetic perceptions, but the result has the potential to fascinate people. In the same way, an algorithm can potentially fascinate people. We need to enable people to experience the aesthetics inherent to the MINT subjects – mathematics, informatics, natural sciences and technology. I would imagine quality education to be headed in this direction. Because the fact that interaction so far consists of swiping with a finger over the surface of a glass plate is eventually a tragedy.

What we thus need is a stronger appreciation of the technological, but at the same time, we cannot lose appreciation for the non-technological?

Absolutely. One needs to come to value both, and above all, one should not place them in competition with each other. But especially the German-speaking realm with its many rules and provisions will provide a lot of room to the fear of technologies – exactly like the European Union. However, the EU actually had an interesting work group under the leadership of Mady Delvaux, which developed the proposition that intelligent computers could have something like a legal personality.

That sounds like you wish for more precise legal frameworks in order to enable a natural handling of Artificial Intelligence.

Yes, but above all it enables the legal autonomy of intelligent computers. This could mean that one cannot simply pull the plug anymore. But in case of misconduct, for example in a car accident, it could have direct consequences for the computer in question.

Does this mean that we will assign responsibility to Artificial Intelligence?

Yes, of course, we will even have to. In earlier times, the notion that an imaginary construct such as a business could take on responsibility was perceived as absurd. Today, it is a self-evident aspect of our economic system and our society. Needless to say, mistakes will oftentimes still be able to be traced back to humans. Nevertheless, we need the concept of self-responsibility for a natural handling with autonomously operating artefacts which is integrated in our societal everyday life.

Interview: Kurt Bille

Translation: Leonie Dieske

 

 

Digital-Transformation-And--Artificial-Intelligence

Robert Trappl is the director of the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence and a European pioneer in the fields of cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence. A central focus of his work is exploring the role that emotions play in the development of Artificial intelligence

“After this conversation, your brain will not be the same”

0 1 #3 © Max Dauven

How does the digital transformation affect our psyche and our brain? In this interview with 42, Professor Montag discusses the use of Counter Strike, conditioned behaviour, and explains why we urgently need to find better ways to control digital transformation.

 


 

Professor Montag – I hardly know any telephone number by heart and I cannot find my way around without the help of Google Maps. Has my brain fallen victim to the digital revolution?

The fact that we no longer know telephone numbers by heart does not necessarily mean that we have become “more stupid”. Nowadays, skills other than the memorisation of said numbers are needed. Unfortunately, there are only a couple of studies on this topic. That is why we do not really know whether and how the digital revolution has negative effects on our capacity to memorise things.

What do the studies that have been done say?

There is an exciting study by a team of Israeli researchers. They gave smartphone novices a mobile phone for three months. Before and afterwards, they conducted neuropsychological tests; these measured impulsiveness, memory capacity, but also simple mathematical skills. The participants showed no decrease in memory capacity after the three months.

Of course the question is always how you measure a complex construct such as memory capacity – there are very different methods. Interestingly, the participants that used the smartphone a lot scored lower in the mathematical tests after three months. In a different study by Kostadin Kushlev, the instruction to use the smartphone frequently during the experiment led to a lack of concentration and behaviour that resembled symptoms of ADHD These first smartphone studies indicate that the frequent interruptions created by smartphone usage can indeed influence our psyche.

Apart from these negative effects, are there also positive ones?

Positive transfer effects have mostly been studied in the context of computer games, especially those that have fallen into disrepute: ego-shooter games such as Counter Strike. In these games, players have to react to stimuli very quickly. Some studies have shown that the games can improve spatial awareness. But here I have to say that a new review by Giovanni Sala and his colleagues could not demonstrate these effects in a wider context over a number of studies. This means that there are perhaps no transfer effects of this kind, or only weak ones. However, reviews have also shown the effects of these types of games on the potential for aggression, which are rather weak according to some studies.

Today, our brain is confronted with completely different conditions than twenty years ago. How does digital transformation fundamentally affect its structure?

Our brain is neuroplastic, which means that it is constantly changing. After this conversation, your brain will not be the same as it was before. Actually, it’s a nice thought: everything we experience in our day-to-day lives leaves a footprint. The intensity of the experience influences how big this footprint will be at the end of the day. By the way: if your brain did not change, you would not be able to remember this conversation. What we are still missing in our research, however, are “in vivo” methods, which are imaging techniques of the brain in the living human being, to map these changes on the molecular level. Our current methods in the studying of humans mostly use magnetic resonance tomography techniques. These techniques are great, but at the moment only provide us with a rough overview of how the human brain works.

I am convinced that the daily confrontation with the digital world will leave traces. The question is what kind of traces it will leave exactly. One example: in a study with players of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games (MMORPG), we discovered that experienced players that described themselves as more addicted to the game had a smaller orbitofrontal cortex. After six weeks of playing the MMORPG, the brain volume in this area had decreased for participants that had not played the game before. At the same time, the participants of this group described themselves as more addicted after six weeks of playing. The area seems to be directly connected to the development of addiction. We could show that this effect is possibly due to playing this game.

„There is a difference between reading Die Zeit’s feuilleton on a tablet computer and being addicted to online pornography”

 

There seem to be two camps of psychologists and neuroscientists when it comes to the topic of digital transformation: those that see the devil’s work in it and those that see new potentials in it. What group do you belong to?

Digital transformation always has two sides. The invention of the iPhone, only eleven years ago, was an incredible achievement. But this has not only simplified communication – it also accelerated the speed of our work. I am convinced that we need half the amount of time to do certain jobs today, compared to twenty years ago. Nevertheless, we do not work four hours less, but often work even longer than before. We have to recognise that the digital revolution – a development that should really also relieve work-related burdens – is in fact accelerating everything, to the point that we are spending even more time in the (mobile) office. This seems to be one of the core problems to me.

Apart from this you have to see that we use very different forms of digital content in our daily lives. This means that you cannot make sweeping generalisations about their effects. There is a difference between reading Die Zeit’s feuilleton on a tablet computer and constantly browsing online pornography websites and perhaps becoming addicted to them. The smartphone, as such, is not good or bad either. Positive and negative consequences depend on how we use these technologies. In other words, the usefulness of the digital revolution for every individual person will be reflected in whether we learn to use devices like smartphones in a smart way.

What does smart usage look like?

Years ago, I set up a reversed U-function that describes the connection between productive working and smartphone usage to illustrate this. If you use your smartphone in a smart way, then the device will make you more productive. But there is a turning point where the whole thing changes and the device makes you unproductive. In my view, this starts at the point where you are constantly interrupted in your daily life. Later on, when you’ll be writing up our conversation, you will never get it done if you check your emails or WhatsApp messages every two minutes.

Our poor brain cannot but react to these new cues – after all, they might be important. In fact, what we are dealing with today are numerous micro-interruptions which often prevent us from becoming properly absorbed in our work. By the way, there is an exciting new study which has shown that smartphones draw cognitive resources simply by lying on a desk. You cannot concentrate on your work on the computer if you are constantly waiting for something nice to happen on your smartphone.

So am I simply conditioned?

Yes, what we are observing here is indeed a simple learning process. Let us travel back to the time before the introduction of the iPhone: you are walking to the bus stop after work and miss your bus. What do you do? Perhaps you read a book or talk to a colleague. The same situation after the introduction of the smartphone: the bus drives away, you are annoyed – and then you remember that you can now answer emails on your phone. At this point, reaching for your smartphone when you are at the bus stop starts to become a habit. After a couple of weeks, the cue bus stop alone will be enough for you to reach for your device.

What can I do to break this vicious circle?

Unfortunately, I can only give you a disillusioning answer to this question. A study recently examined how long it takes to learn a new habit – the median number of days it takes is 66. That is quite a long time. If this number could be transferred to the development of habits regarding the smartphone, this would mean that you would have to put it into the back pocket of your rucksack every time you leave work. Then you would have to walk to the bus stop and reach into thin air for about 66 days. But the problem is: the bus stop is not the only cue that is connected to the smartphone. By now, there are numerous other cues that make us reach for our phones automatically.

„The smartphone is a sleep killer”

 

So the back pocket of the rucksack alone will not do the trick. What else can we do to reduce our smartphone-usage?

I myself spend too much time on my phone. That is why I have stopped using it altogether in the bedroom. For this reason I have bought an analogue alarm clock again. We know that using a smartphone in the evening correlates with a lack of sleep duration and quality. This is because many of us do not only use the device as an alarm clock in the bedroom, but instead browse the internet for a long time before going to sleep. All of a sudden, it’s one o’clock in the morning, but the smartphone alarm is still going to ring at six… What’s more, a lot of people forget to put the messenger functions on mute, so they get woken up by incoming messages during the night. You have to admit that the device is a sleep killer.

Furthermore, I wear a wrist watch in my daily life. Because of this, I don’t need my smartphone anymore to see what time it is. After all, the bad thing is that it never ends at checking what time it is. While I have the device in my hand, I suddenly see that I have received a message on WhatsApp. And all of a sudden I am on my phone for 20 minutes, and when I put it away I still don’t know what time it is.

„Social networks use perfidious mechanisms to increase social pressures”

 

Apart from habit, social pressure is also a factor. Your boss, your friends – everybody expects a fast reply…

Social networks use perfidious mechanisms to increase this social pressure. A typical example is WhatsApp’s double tick function – I see that you have read my message, why aren’t you answering me? In my view, providers introduce things like this to accelerate and increase the traffic on their platform.

Facebook uses another significant mechanism: one motivation to use the platform is the expectation of positive feedback in the form of likes. There is no ‚thumbs down‘. Users could use a thumbs down to signal their disapproval of hate speech, for instance. In my opinion there is no thumbs down because users would not feel as well at ease on Facebook if it existed. After all, who wants to get negative feedback? It would reduce traffic, Facebook would get less data and earn less money.

We urgently need to think about Silicon Valley’s payment model in this context: most internet platforms lead users to believe that they are getting something for free. But the service is not free of charge – we pay with our data, and the platforms are designed to make us generate as much data as possible. Wouldn’t it be better to pay something like €2.99 a month for a service like this and be safe in the knowledge that the data will only be used to improve the service, and not to manipulate elections or influence users in other ways?

Apart from the fact that we pay with our data, the digital also generates a lot of stress. Are analogue people happier?

No, I would not generalise it like that. What’s more, this seems to be more of a theoretical question to me; in Germany, about 82 per cent of people uses the internet. The rest will mainly be made up of toddlers and very old people. Everyone in between has at least a connection to the internet, and most will have a smartphone. Today, there is hardly anyone who lives completely analogously.

How have we adapted our environment to this behaviour?

It has come to the point where changes in urban development are being made for smartphone users. Cologne and Augsburg are testing so-called “smombie“ traffic lights. They are embedded in the ground at train stations and shine a light on the smartphone user from below when the train comes. In the USA, in New Jersey, you can even get a fine for texting while crossing the street as a pedestrian.

Would you want something like this for Europe?

I think this could quickly lead to overregulation. Really, we should trust our common sense. But that is difficult because our behaviour is overlearned with regards to the smartphone in particular – we are no longer aware of our own usage. If I asked you how much you have used your smartphone since last Wednesday, you would only have a rough idea. We perceive this time in a distorted way. Our measurements have shown that the average smartphone user uses his or her device for about two and a half hours a day – that is in direct interaction. If we project this onto a week, that is almost a whole day. We could surely use this whole day more sensibly – to learn new skills, to meet up with friends, and last but not least, to spend more time with our children.

The digital revolution has completely overrun us“

 

That does sound rather pessimistic.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not critical of technology across the board. We need digital transformation, but we have to make sure we steer it in the right direction so it can improve our society – from the individual health and psychological level to the socio-political level. We are currently looking at problems brought on by digital transformation in a lot of different areas.

In our defence, though, we have to admit that the digital revolution completely overrun us. It is still steamrolling us and we are still lagging behind in many respects without being able to take a moment to answer questions like: where is all of this supposed to lead us? We really need this debate. But we cannot turn back time and our modern society is dependent on a well functioning digital infrastructure. Personally, I do not want to live without Skype when I am in my lab in China for several months, and could hardly stay in contact with my wife and daughter otherwise. All the same, a lot of companies have become so powerful that some regulation is necessary. That I am convinced of.

Interview: Eliana Berger

Translation: Charlotte Bander

 

 

Digitalisierung und Gehirn

Prof. Dr Christian Montag is the Head of Molecular Psychology at Ulm University and a visiting professor at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China. He primarily conducts research on the effects of digital processes on human nature. At the end of 2017, he published a book on the topic called “Homo Digitalis”.