Key technology Artificial Intelligence – How AI and Big Data shape our society

Digital technologies are a prime example of the double-edged nature of technological progress. In addition to its exciting new opportunities for social, political and economic interactions, the Internet also provides us with entirely new forms of personal surveillance and massive invasions of our privacy, not to mention the increasing dependence of our entire infrastructure on it, which makes us vulnerable to cyberterrorists.

However, that scientific and technological progress usually comes with positive developments as well as great fears is not a sole phenomenon of our time.

  • When the railroads were introduced, people were afraid of the „inhuman“ speed locomotives came with. There were indeed a number of serious accidents, boilers exploded, trains collided, bridges collapsed.
  • The waves of industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries brought about massive economic growth, but also the emergence of a proletariat of misery and the dissolution of the traditional extended family.
  • Besides computers, lasers and modern medical diagnostics quantum physics brought us the atomic bomb.

What is new, however, is what we expect from technological change for the future. Up to the 19th century, philosophers and writers in the Western world drew extremely positive pictures in their visions of the future of what lies ahead for mankind. It was not until the 20th century that the picture tilted and utopias became dystopias. The visions of the future of the last hundred years describe predominantly unpleasant or even apocalyptic worlds, shaped by ecocide, murderous robots, totalitarian regimes and nuclear annihilation. George Orwell’s „1984“ and Aldous Huxley’s „Brave New World“, the figureheads of the futuristic novel in the 20th century, describe nightmare worlds, caused by despotic world dictatorships that were made possible solely by modern technologies. And even before „Berlin Alexanderplatz“ Alfred Döblin wrote the novel „Mountains, Oceans and Giants“, which appeared in 1924 and tells of a world divided into two large power blocks, in which the settlement of Greenland caused the melting of the ice masses. And if you look at the futuristic novels of today, you can see that here too: Dystopias dominate the genre, of loss of freedom through total digital surveillance („Zero“ by Marc Elsberg, „Das Erwachen“ by Andreas Brandhorst, „NSA – Nationales Sicherheits-Amt“ by Andreas Eschbach), optimized human beings raised with artificial intelligence („Die Hochhausspringerin “ by Julia von Lacadou), virtual identities („The Tyranny of the Butterfly“ by Frank Schätzing) and the collapse of the global climate („Burnt Out“ by Andreas Eschbach, „The Place in the Sun“ by Christian Torkler).

Many technology skeptics believe that only the abandonment of technological development can be the solution. They thereby follow the logic: Progress has given us all the problems, so only its limitation can solve those. However, this logic forgets the other side of the coin: New technologies have always been excellent problem solvers as well. Hunger, disease, the effects of extreme weather events and many other plagues of mankind could be reduced to a fraction of the extent that was normal for previous generations. A fiery plea for science and enlightenment is made by Harvard professor Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now, which is well worth reading. In Pinker‘s view, science and technology are the driving forces behind the positive developments of past centuries – and will continue to be so in the future.

One example of the technological ambivalence described above is the development of artificial intelligence (AI). The learning and optimization processes on which today’s AI is based on, so-called „deep learning“, enable a massive increase in machine intelligence on a broad scale: Computers are now in a position to no longer only handle the specific purpose for which they were designed, such as playing chess or browsing databases, but are usable in far more diverse areas today. Sooner or later, artificial intelligence will be superior to human intelligence in most, perhaps even in all cognitive areas. Incidentally, this also applies to areas that most people today still consider to be the incontrovertible domains of human ability: Intuition, creativity and the ability to grasp the emotions of other people. The latter in particular, is likely to become a standard capability of AI systems within the next few years. AI programmer speak of „affective computing“.

These developments are potentially very positive, for example, when it comes to caring for people, or in therapeutic treatments when it is important to react appropriately to the emotions of the other person. However, there are also very threatening scenarios, for example when machines recognize and thus manipulate our emotions, and this more effectively than humans can do. Former Google employee and Silicon Valley expert Tristan Harris reports that YouTube already has digital simulations of almost two billion people and their online behavior based on the viewing habits of its users. The company is using those to optimize its AI algorithms to determine which videos can be used to keep individual people on the platform the longest.  „Silicon Valley is hacking into our brains,“ says Harris.

Even by analyzing the most common form of our communication, speech, AI will soon be able to read us better than we can read ourselves. The German company Precire Technologies, for example, has developed software that can create a very accurate personality profile of a person based on their voice alone. For this purpose the AI experts had trained neural networks on voice data together with the psychological profiles of about 5000 test persons. And very successfully so: companies are already using this software in HR application procedures. You do not need much imagination to imagine what a powerful tool this software is in the hands of totalitarian systems.

Hyper-intelligent computers in turn will advance science itself even faster. This in turn could create more artificial systems that are even more intelligent. Such feedback loops would ensure that humans would soon be unable to keep up intellectually. As early as 1993, the mathematician and computer pioneer Vernor Vinge published the prognosis that „within 30 years we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence“. We are well on track to fulfill this prediction for the year 2023. We should be worried by the sentence immediately following that in Verne’s statement: „Shortly after, the human era will be ended.“

But for all the futuristic dreams (or nightmares), the developments in the field of AI are already imposing dramatic social and political shifts and distortions on us with the potential for massive social crises. High-ranking economists are already warning of great social inequality between a few winners and many losers in the „winner takes it all“ economy of the digital world.  A large number of people are threatened to lose their jobs and thus social status. And this not only in the lower income segment: Academics such as doctors, lawyers and teachers will also be affected. In just 25 years, up to 50 percent of today’s professions are likely to have become superfluous. In the future, social inequality will no longer be caused by the exploitation of people, but simply by social insignificance of many groups.

In addition, the country with the most developed AI will most likely rise to become the dominant economic and military power on this planet. Currently, it looks like two countries are fighting for global AI supremacy: the US and China. China has caught up strongly in the last few years and is even about to leapfrog to first place. The Europeans have long since been left behind in this race and degraded to standbyers. The lead of the Americans and Chinese is, however, not based on smarter researchers, better AI algorithms or better computer programmers, but simply on the availability of data. Data is considered „the oil of the 21st century“. That the collectors of large databases („Big Data“) have great power is already shown by the enormous commercial success of the likes of Facebook and Google, or Tencent and Baidu. These companies earns tens of billions of dollars with personalized digital advertising and have long since become dominant forces in election campaigns and other political disputes. Companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple as well as the governments collect data about us without our knowledge, sometimes at places and from devices that seem completely unsuspicious like TVs or Xbox consoles. In 2016, for example, a consumer sued the manufacturer of a networked vibrator who had collected and stored highly intimate data about the owner’s use of that device.

In a world of total networking, our privacy is increasingly disappearing. With the appropriate software for face and image recognition and a dense network of cameras, creating motion profiles of individual people in real time has long since become no longer a problem. Soon we will hardly be able to do anything without anyone knowing about it. Eric Schmidt, the head of Google, put it this way: „If there is something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.“  All this takes place within democratic structures. The example of China shows what happens when there is no democratic control of the government, and how far completely uncontrolled manipulative use of data and the feeding of AI algorithms can go.

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