How can artificial intelligence and big data contribute to making society and business more agile, free and innovative? Dirk Helbing, professor for computational social science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, is one of the best-known pioneers of digitalization. His answer to the above question: What we need is nothing less than a system change so that we can do justice to the potential of digitalization.
Professor Helbing, in which phase is our understanding of digital technology right now?
We’re beginning to realize the effect of digitalization on society. On the negative side, the unwanted side effects are becoming apparent. The positive side is that we’re also becoming aware of all the things we can do with digital technology if we go about it the right way.
That sounds as if society were like a patient who has already swallowed the first pills but is only just taking a look at the patient information leaflet.
I even think we’re at the stage before that: Digitalization is still in the experimental phase, and all of us are guinea pigs. But the test phase of a medication comes with strict rules. It would have to be taken off the market if it showed dangerous side effects. The digital experiment with us humans and society doesn’t have that kind of safety net.
There’s an off button for almost everything, except for digitalization (iStock.com/Antagain)
Or we would have had to abort the experiment when it became apparent that monopolies are forming, that data abuse is taking place and that social media are not just an innocent meeting place but often a platform for smear campaigns and plotting?
Perhaps, but who would have been responsible for doing so? There’s no emergency button to stop digitalization. So certain Internet companies are free to continue their experiments. We as users didn’t even notice to begin with. But by now, the hate on the Internet is glaringly obvious.
We have to mobilize the forces of civil society by making the required resources accessible to people.
Now there’s another digital development that is about to have its breakthrough: artificial intelligence. Will it make everything worse or will it improve the situation?
Its potential is vast and ambivalent. It will change our understanding of work, since automation threatens many of today’s jobs. But the transformation of human labor is just one aspect of our changing economy. They say data is the new oil. Our personal data is sold and our attention put up for auction. Big data influences our access to products as well as their price. You can already see that today when health insurances determine your premium on the basis of your lifestyle. China goes as far as controlling society with the help of a
citizen score that rewards or punishes certain behaviors. Okay, China has a different political system. But even here, digitalization is rewriting the rules – and many things pass by the parliament.
That’s not good for democracy.
No, it’s only good for the powers that want to weaken it. And for companies that understand transformation to mean gathering data about us without our permission and then using it to manipulate us. This is referred to as
surveillance capitalism, in which customers become goods themselves.
So what needs to be done?
I’m convinced that we have to mobilize the forces of civil society by making the required resources accessible to people – from money and access to data all the way to new forms of co-determination.
Could you explain that in more detail?
We should introduce a
basic income as a general safeguard that keeps people covered. This is important – also for companies – because the digital transformation can only succeed if people don’t fight against it out of fear. I could also imagine an investment bonus: money that is not intended for one’s own consumption but is instead distributed to people with ideas, to social or cultural projects, to developers of innovations.
I’d like to see locally used digital assistants whose artificial intelligence achieves synergy with human intelligence.
So basically crowd funding on a broader scale: Citizens receive money that they can use to finance projects of their choosing.
Exactly. With the result that civil society can have a much bigger say and initiate projects itself – and for the main part locally, which is crucial because our society has become far too complex to be controlled centrally. We’ve long since realized that there’s a much better understanding of the problems and their solution at a local level rather than a central one. The world is so multi-layered that neither politics nor business can always be at the ready wherever something needs to be done. We should therefore strive to turn cities into innovation drivers by involving civil society.
What role do the digital technologies of big data and artificial intelligence play in this context?
We should have digital assistants to help us take control over our personal data, be creative and innovative, coordinate things with each other and protect the environment. They would support civil-society projects to take them up to a professional standard. What I envision is not a super-intelligent central AI that controls the whole of society from one location and tells everyone what to do. I’d like to see locally employed digital assistants whose artificial intelligence achieves synergy with human intelligence.
Do these projects have to be profitable?
Not necessarily. What’s more important is that we overcome the limitations of today’s monetary system. We should invest the money we have so that we can successfully enter the next era in human history.
New rules: China controls its inhabitants with “Citizen Scores” (iStock.com/Starcevic)
But where would the money come from?
We have to change the way we create money. Currently, this is done by central banks. Many people think these banks are neutral, but the reality is that a few earn a lot of money, and we have to pay for it. I think that’s wrong. Everyone should benefit from the creation of money, which is why it makes sense to use the money both for a basic income and for the investment bonus. That would result in a better economic system that serves civil society and us humans. The money would be taken out of the system again through value added tax to create a financial circuit instead of inflation.
You have drastic economic changes in mind. How realistic is that?
Ultimately, changes are urgently needed because the old system is no longer working. Of course, you could also renew this system and take it in another direction, for example a kind of digital feudalism where companies own the data and we’re at their mercy. But that would be a nightmare for many of us. My goal is to get digital democracy, democratic capitalism and a participative market society off the ground – that is, to strengthen civil society.
We’re caught up in the thought pattern of the material age although the opportunities of the digital age are boundless.
From what do you determine that the old system is no longer working?
Do you have the impression that the world is doing okay? Debt crisis, climate crisis, migration crisis: crises wherever you look. We’re caught up in the thought pattern of the material age although the opportunities of the digital age are boundless: In contrast to oil, data and information are not scarce commodities or finite resources. And yet many people try to take the material world and just implement it digitally. Look at all the startup companies that start out with visionary ideas. One day, when they go public in order to expand, they have to submit to the logic of profit, and not much will be left of the ideals of the founding phase. None of the digital corporations have managed to free themselves from the fixation on profit and capital increase. But if we implement the investment bonus model, we’ll not only be able to realize projects that are economically profitable but also those that we consider right and important.
What role do companies play in your model of society?
Companies have a hard time making headway with the digital transformation – just like the political arena is having difficulties giving democracy a digital upgrade. The reason is that the current system’s logic opposes the transformation. That’s why I’m so adamant about the suggestions I’ve made. These new, creative ways of adding value are consistent with the agility of digital processes. Digitalization has more to offer than just big data and artificial intelligence. Ideally, we will manage to establish a new way of thinking and a new form of social and economic coexistence. A new age is dawning.
Lead image: iStock.com/zoranm
Sidebar: ETH/Giulia Marthaler