Dirk Helbing, Professor of Computational Social Science at ETH Zürich, and keynote speaker at the Connekt Member Dinner 2017, fears data dictatorship – thus calls to create our future society as we like it:
“Wake up, folks! Remember how powerful we are”
You are critical about the high level of trust of governments in big data. Today you are the keynote speaker at our annual dinner for our members, who are personally but also professionally interested in the use of big data. What would be your first advice?
Big data has a great potential, but you must learn how to use it. In particular, you must learn about the possible side effects. Because big data does not automatically reveal the truth – it is not the holy grail to turn data quantity into quality. At times, big data can be quite misleading.
You have articulated the downside of using big data in the dystopian perspective of a possible totalitarian society, which sounds horrible. What exactly is it that you are warning us from?
I am warning of a data dictatorship. Politically, this is a sensitive issue – so sensitive that the paper we wrote for Scientific American was delayed for an entire year. What I am saying is that big data is like electricity: most people don’t know how a nuclear power plant works. In a similar way, people don’t know how big data works, and that it is used to manipulate and steer us – if you want, to turn us into robots. We are not anymore in full control of our decisions. And what is even more important – we don’t realize that have lost control.
Are you saying big data prevents us from being or becoming independent thinkers? What can we do to prevent this process?
‘Knowledge is power.’ ‘Democracy is outdated, let the data speak.’ Such claims must be critically reflected. And it’s almost too late for this. Data-driven dictatorship is ready to go! Data is used to manipulate us, while we are buying, voting, making choices. Big data, when combined with artificial intelligence and knowledge of psychology, is perhaps more dangerous than atomic bombs. They can raise censorhip and propaganda to entirely new levels – as we see with fake news and the non-fact society, we are suddenly living in. In this connection, it is good to remember the terrible wars caused by propaganda, after the printing press and the radio were invented.
Have we already reached Kurzweil’s point of singularity – the moment where machine intelligence is more powerful than a human mind?
I don’t know. But it is a fact that the power of artificial intelligence systems increases exponentially, i.e. extremely fast. It has recently been claimed that a 1.000 dollar computer will be smarter than a human mind in 9 years’ time. But we should assume that military applications are ahead of commercial applications at least 30 years.
What can we do to maintain our human balance? Should we imbue an ethical discussion?
People should co-operate, so they are more powerful together. Collective intelligence – that is the right approach. Creativity distinguishes us from robots. It is often suggested that all we need to do to solve humanity’s problems is to find the optimal solution and roll it out on planetary scale. This is misleading. The best solutions are outside the optimization space we are considering. They can only be achieved by innovation. I believe we need much more fundamental changes for cities and countries that optimization would deliver. We need to get sustainable – and we have to produce 40% less CO2 within 15 years. That is a tremendous effort. We have to reinvent about half of our economy, from transportation to logistics, from fertilizers to plastics, and recycle what is waste today. Landfill sites may be the mines of the future: we only have to invent an incentive system to reuse waste and realize a circular economy. Innovations like the Internet of Things and blockchain will help us, here. And 3D printing may increase the importance of regional production.
Should we focus more on raising consciousness and ethical debates?
Certainly awareness is very important. That is why I take many opportunities to talk to all sorts of people, and to write and publicize. But what we need most, is a new financial system. A system in which the “externalities” are measured. The financial system should serve society, and not the other way round. We need to articulate the values that are important to us: education, health, sustainability, liberty, cooperation. We should take these values as a starting point for a multi-dimensional incentive system, which I call “finance 4.0”, which will create new market forces boosting a circular and sharing economy. We cannot realize this in the old system – people tried it, but it did not work.
Who should take the lead: politicians, governments, industry?
We should enable every individual contribute. Co-creation, co-evolution and collective intelligence are the decisive keyworks. We need a participatory economy and society. Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap may serve as role models.
Everything in this digital twenty-first century society is connected and interconnected. The name of this network is Connekt. Our work is about connecting, too – but with an accent on the human, personal touch. This is the place where people meet people in order to work on shared goals on smart, sustainable and social mobility. How can we contribute?
First of all, you can create awareness. You can also contribute to building the open and participatory platforms I was talking about before – platforms to measure externalities and to share ideas, data, goods, and services. We need to develop a society that stimulates individual talent and interests. In the future we will have digital assistants to guide us, similar to the guide you engage when you visit a different country, with a culture you are not familiar with. This is why we started Nervousnet (see nervousnet.info), to realize the vision of a shared planetary nervous system. Nervousnet is a large-scale distributed platform that provides real-time social sensing services as a public good – which is different from existing Big Data systems that often threaten personal souvereignty and social cohesion. While they are often closed, proprietary, privacy-intrusive and discriminatory, Nervousnet is an open, privacy-preserving and participatory platform designed to be collectively built by the citizens and for the citizens.
You are very dedicated to the work you do. What is it that keeps you going, personally?
This point in time is where history is made. We experience the beginning of a new age, the digital age. More than ever in history, we are driven by ideas, i.e. non-material forces. We need to transform and to re-invent everything, including ourselves. We have a chance to create a better world, so it would be stupid not to take that opportunity. Now we need a little bit of an adventurous mind, to imagine and develop daring ideas that can shape the future. What seems to be science fiction today, may be reality soon. I am optimistic about the human talent to be creative and the desire to sustain the values we need to protect. What keeps me going is the drive to empower people to be creative. Wake up, folks! You can’t create reality once you’ve handed over your power to a data-driven society in which we have degraded ourselves to execute what we are told. Remember how powerful we are! It’s time to create the future we want.