Is there room for human­i­ty in the world of Big Data?

Edzard Reuter

Big Data offers many new pos­si­bil­i­ties: Dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion and the automa­tion of val­ue-added chains lead to greater effi­cien­cy in pro­duc­tion and ser­vices. At the same time, Big Data is behind cre­at­ing cus­tomer pro­files and analysing these to ren­der the mar­ket­ing of prod­ucts and ser­vices more effec­tive. Fur­ther­more, Big Data can also be use­ful in low­er­ing cor­rup­tion in admin­is­tra­tive areas owing to soft­ware-sup­port­ed doc­u­men­ta­tion and much more. What changes will we see in our soci­ety? Where is it all head­ing or where should it be going?

Dr Cal­daro­la, author of Big Data and Law and for­mer CEO of Daim­ler Benz AG Edzard Reuter reflect on the mean­ing of being human and human inter­ac­tion in the dig­i­tal age.

The pan­dem­ic has accel­er­at­ed the demand for dig­i­tal solu­tions. Hav­ing class­es at home, work­ing and exer­cis­ing from home, online shop­ping and much more are all depen­dent on dig­i­tal solu­tions. How is soci­ety chang­ing when peo­ple are being replaced by machines or robots and thus work less or per­haps not at all? Is this increase in dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion a tem­po­rary phe­nom­e­non? Do indus­tries need dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion? What effect is this phe­nom­e­non hav­ing on people?

Edzard Reuter: We keep hear­ing in the news about all the things young peo­ple are now able to do with their smart­phones, such as edit­ing pic­tures, alter­ing facial fea­tures etc. Which already brings us to the ques­tion: Where is this all head­ing to?

Right at the start, I would like to men­tion that for quite a while now I have been observ­ing with some scep­ti­cism all the things being devel­oped by the var­i­ous tech­ni­cians, engi­neers or peo­ple who are sim­ply keen to cre­ate or devel­op new things and who have been “let loose” to devel­op things with­out hav­ing giv­en any fur­ther thought to the ques­tion of whether these inno­va­tions are even need­ed.  All these new devel­op­ments fall under the cat­e­go­ry of progress for the sake of progress.

All these peo­ple who pos­sess a cer­tain affin­i­ty for tech­nol­o­gy are improv­ing what their pre­de­ces­sors had made. This usu­al­ly means mak­ing things more com­plex such as, for exam­ple, quan­tum com­put­ers or oth­er things which are faster, col­lect and save more data and are able to do and man­age even more things. These devel­op­ments are tak­ing place because we want to advance.

I had already expe­ri­enced this phe­nom­e­non with our engi­neers at Daim­ler. Incred­i­bly com­pe­tent peo­ple in their fields and com­plete­ly cer­tain that only they and nobody else knew what the car of the future would be like.  They car­ry on with­out any lim­it hav­ing been set. It’s like an addic­tion: always invent­ing and devel­op­ing some­thing new ‑and this enthu­si­asm and curios­i­ty is not real­ly sup­posed to be restrained in any way. Nev­er­the­less, these devel­op­ments should not be car­ried out with­out con­sid­er­ing the ques­tions “why” or “accord­ing to which cri­te­ria”. This is a top­ic which I have been con­sid­er­ing for a long time and for which I have no answer.

Authors, such as Friedrich Dur­ren­matt, in his play “The Physi­cists” or the satir­i­cal film direc­tor Stan­ley Kubrick with his film “Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Bomb” had already recog­nised and con­sid­ered these trends long ago. And this top­ic leads us to the roots of human exis­tence because nowa­days our capac­i­ties are lim­it­less, whether it be in genome research, quan­tum com­put­ers or oth­er areas. Even Elon Musk is reach­ing for new goals when he says he would like to cre­ate a con­nec­tion between a brain com­put­er inter­face and his brain in order to be con­nect­ed to a com­put­er as soon as pos­si­ble so that they can work togeth­er and prof­it from one anoth­er. That could be bypass­ing nerve dam­age or trans­fer­ring one’s thoughts to a smartphone.

What this all means for peo­ple and human soci­ety- even for human nature per se- that I do not know and can­not answer. But it gives me pause to think- espe­cial­ly when moral and eth­i­cal issues come up. Par­tic­u­lar­ly ques­tions con­cern­ing moral­i­ty and eth­ic can­not be trans­ferred to a com­put­er, in my opin­ion, and cer­tain­ly can­not be answered by one either- at least I can’t imag­ine that it can- even if tech­ni­cal­ly versed peo­ple empha­sise again and again that it is only a mat­ter of time before com­put­ers have human traits and feel­ings and can han­dle these issues as well. It is thought to be dif­fi­cult at the moment, but the next gen­er­a­tion could pos­si­bly man­age it.

For a long time, no one believed that a com­put­er could beat a per­son at chess since the com­put­er was lack­ing in cre­ativ­i­ty, a trait which could not be achieved by the var­i­ous pro­grams and the learn­ing capac­i­ty of the com­put­er. But then the IBM chess com­put­er “Deep Blue” was devel­oped which defeat­ed the chess cham­pi­on at that time, Gar­ry Kas­parov, in one game with reg­u­lar time checks- a vic­to­ry rep­re­sent­ing an entire com­pe­ti­tion con­sist­ing of six games played under tour­na­ment conditions.

Where is the lim­it to what is pos­si­ble and what is rea­son­able and ten­able at a moral and eth­i­cal lev­el? I do not know – which is why it is dif­fi­cult for me to answer your ques­tion of whether peo­ple need digitalisation.

The new tech­ni­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties have nev­er hin­dered their own use. What does this devel­op­ment lead to? To an uncon­di­tion­al basic income because machines or robots will be doing the work done by peo­ple in the future? What will peo­ple be doing tomorrow?

Automa­tion will be accel­er­at­ed by dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion. This trend will end up cost­ing jobs. Which leads us to the ques­tion: What are peo­ple going to live off if machines are doing their work?

At the moment, there are 8 bil­lion peo­ple, and we are well on our way to reach­ing the 10 bil­lion mark. How many peo­ple would receive an uncon­di­tion­al basic income? What would hap­pen to the many bil­lions who live in pover­ty and have no edu­ca­tion? Are they all to receive an uncon­di­tion­al income?

Until some­one has proved me wrong, I have to think that the idea of an uncon­di­tion­al basic income is non­sense. I sim­ply can­not imag­ine that the sav­ings in admin­is­tra­tion and the low­er pro­duc­tion costs could cov­er the expens­es of this type of income- and cer­tain­ly not in devel­op­ing and third world nations. Until we have good mod­el pro­jec­tions show­ing us that these premis­es are real­is­tic then I remain doubt­ful con­cern­ing uncon­di­tion­al income and can­not envi­sion it.

I also don’t think that the peo­ple of tomor­row will not have any work because automa­tion sim­ply can­not be put into play that quick­ly. When I think about the cur­rent chaot­ic sit­u­a­tion in the pan­dem­ic, whether it be the “Coro­na App”, or reg­is­ter­ing for and organ­is­ing vac­ci­na­tion appoint­ments or organ­is­ing work and school at home, then there is sure­ly still a lot to do before the chaos has been elim­i­nat­ed and automa­tion works with­out any glitch­es at all lev­els- at least two or three gen­er­a­tions.  There will still be groups of pro­fes­sions who will sur­vive despite the increase in automa­tion, such as skilled man­u­al labour­ers or caregivers.

I also don’t think that the ele­ment of joy in tan­gi­ble work in favour of prof­it max­imi­sa­tion will dis­ap­pear- even if Indus­try 4.0 would want it to be the case.

Two or three years ago there was a lot of buzz con­cern­ing self-dri­ven cars. But there are still a lot of unan­swered ques­tions con­cern­ing self-dri­ven cars, such as, for exam­ple, the alter­na­tives in dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. I don’t think that autonomous dri­ving will ever real­ly exist in a tru­ly com­pre­hen­sive fash­ion because there are sim­ply so many vari­ables in road traf­fic to con­sid­er.  These types of vehi­cles will only ever be pos­si­ble when there is a com­plete­ly inte­grat­ed sys­tems for cars as well. Even then it will be hard because the prob­lem of hack­er attacks and the chaos that would ensue as a result has not been resolved. This devel­op­ment is not going to hap­pen that quick­ly. Per­haps in three gen­er­a­tions. I just don’t know. I also don’t know if peo­ple will be land­ing on Mars in three gen­er­a­tions and estab­lish­ing a colony there. But even if all these things come to pass, it doesn’t change the fact that we still need peo­ple who see to it that order and dis­ci­pline still exist, espe­cial­ly when it comes to hack­er attacks, who make sure that laws are still adhered to and safe­guard our free­dom to make our own deci­sions.  This will always be true – unless peo­ple get rid of it.  There are peo­ple who say that human­i­ty has always mutat­ed and per­haps should still be chang­ing and mutat­ing and per­haps a muta­tion will con­sist of a union between brain and machine, as is desired by Elon Musk.

Do the new dig­i­tal inno­va­tions from Big Data to algo­rithms to AI pro­mote ana­lyt­i­cal skills while soft fac­tors are being put on the back burn­er? Expressed dif­fer­ent­ly, will we neglect emo­tion­al abil­i­ties because of digitalisation?

Humans have always been pur­su­ing pow­er while “Mam­mon” is cer­tain­ly a dom­i­nant goal at the moment. Per­haps Big Data pro­motes quan­ti­ta­tive aspects of more, bet­ter, high­er…. A coun­ter­part and a trig­ger for the coun­ter­part have sure­ly always exist­ed. Of course, data is being record­ed every­where using devices, such as fit­ness track­ers: Answers to ques­tions like how much and how fast has some­one been walk­ing and qual­i­ta­tive aspects, such as how a per­son is feel­ing while they are walk­ing, are cer­tain­ly not being includ­ed. I still feel, how­ev­er, that peo­ple are not going to for­get the soft emo­tion­al aspects of life- even if peo­ple are not being stim­u­lat­ed in that direc­tion owing to data-dri­ven busi­ness models.

When I talk to ele­men­tary school teach­ers, I hear often enough that human instincts are still there, and they are intact. Small chil­dren notice right away if some­one has been favoured or unfair­ly treat­ed or even oppressed. There has to be a moment when these instincts are being sup­pressed or repressed dur­ing the course of their lives. Which still does not mean that they no longer exist.

Nat­u­ral­ly greed still exists but there is also envy- the coun­ter­part to greed. There is love and there is hate. All these feel­ings are there, and I doubt they will dis­ap­pear com­plete­ly or give place to a desire for faster suc­cess. It is pos­si­ble that the soft fac­tors of life will be sup­pressed by the con­tin­u­ing devel­op­ment of digitalisation.

Dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion achieves homo­gene­ity or sim­i­lar­i­ty and seems to be viewed as user instruc­tions for the pop­u­la­tion. Is there still a place for indi­vid­u­al­ism, plu­ral­ism, diver­si­ty? Where will the thinkers go? What will hap­pen to inno­va­tion and creativity?

Your ques­tion is a rel­e­vant one because the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion will bring change. We need thinkers who ask these ques­tions and find answers and solu­tions to them. That is exact­ly what I am wor­ried about. Where have these thinkers gone? Where are the ones who fill in emp­ty pages and do not sim­ply accept a filled-out con­tract? Where are the ones who don’t hand over respon­si­bil­i­ty to some­one else but instead have the con­fi­dence to con­sid­er the objec­tions and can refute them with good argu­ments and can devel­op new ideas? 

The indus­try is cer­tain­ly not think­ing about this trend at all. It is all about cre­at­ing prof­its for their share­hold­ers or their own bonus. That kind of think­ing has been drilled into their brains for years. That is the out­look of the indus­try. It doesn’t care how the world will look in 30 – 50 years. I have seri­ous doubts that peo­ple in this sec­tor have been giv­ing any thought to the effects of com­plete automa­tion or the replace­ment of cars by drones. The indus­try doesn’t reflect on these issues. Instead, is the indus­try more like­ly to focus on, for exam­ple, what would hap­pen if the auto­mo­bile indus­try had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do away with bus dri­vers? What would be the effects result­ing from such a devel­op­ment and how would you nego­ti­ate with unions? But no one is giv­ing a thought to long-term per­spec­tives con­cern­ing the human com­mu­ni­ty. It is all about the short-term, con­ceiv­able and doable outlook.

Of course, we have thinkers- per­haps less so in the fields of busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion and engi­neer­ing but rather in the human­i­ties, the dis­ci­plines which are all too often brushed off as exot­ic and insignif­i­cant- researchers in the human­i­ties who are miss­ing on exec­u­tive boards. In my day there were still peo­ple like Daniel Goeude­vert, who is actu­al­ly a philoso­pher, but today it is main­ly peo­ple from law, busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion and tech­ni­cians who are inhab­it­ing the upper ech­e­lons. We are march­ing for­ward with our eyes shut and shrug our shoul­ders as we val­i­date every­thing that is tech­ni­cal­ly doable and possible.

There are human­ists who think about these things. Per­haps they are not so con­spic­u­ous, but peo­ple like Jür­gen Haber­mas are there who are recog­nised and who have been warn­ing us from the very begin­ning, some­times cor­rect­ly, some­times not, but nonethe­less.  There are cer­tain­ly peo­ple out there con­sid­er­ing these very issues, but I still have yet to hear a plau­si­ble answer from anyone.

My favourite quote:

“Knowl­edge is the only resource which pro­duces more when it is being used”.

Jür­gen M. Jancik

Fur­ther­more, you cor­rect­ly inquired about cre­ativ­i­ty and inno­va­tion. Elec­tric mobil­i­ty is sure­ly an inno­va­tion, even if it is not an earth-shat­ter­ing or tech­ni­cal­ly demand­ing one and it has been known for decades.

The Occi­dent needs inno­va­tion because only inno­va­tion can ensure a rise in GNP. Per­haps we have been mak­ing a sys­tem­at­ic error: Are the thinkers miss­ing at the exec­u­tive lev­el or has greed become a career goal of employ­ees? Are lob­by­ists and strate­gists hin­der­ing inno­va­tion in the name of main­tain­ing a mar­ket share? Or do we lack the courage to replace a cash cow with a dis­rup­tive inno­va­tion with­in one’s own firm because the short-term prof­it in stocks is to be con­sid­ered as a con­crete time peri­od? The ques­tion still remains: Where do inno­va­tions occur and why do they become estab­lished? Prof­it is a key fac­tor. The real prob­lem is the fact that the thought of even hav­ing a prob­lem has been for­got­ten and gone astray. Set­ting long-term goals for man­ag­ing economies and keep­ing the focus on human com­mu­ni­ties is impor­tant because a human com­mu­ni­ty is not a col­lec­tion of human greed and human avarice. But we live in an age where these issues are becom­ing less relevant.

For many years you have been a pas­sion­ate social demo­c­rat, focus­ing on issues such as human col­lec­tivism, sol­i­dar­i­ty and the com­mon good.  These val­ues seem to be becom­ing less impor­tant. Do you think this trend will con­tin­ue owing to a rise in digitalisation?

Polit­i­cal par­ties, democ­ra­cy and the bal­ance of pow­er are all fac­ing seri­ous chal­lenges. First of all, we can see a change in how par­ties have become dom­i­nat­ed by a sin­gle per­son. Con­sid­er France, where Emmanuel Macron found­ed his own par­ty and took down the tra­di­tion­al par­ties. Only Marine Le Pen and her par­ty have remained. We can observe the same phe­nom­e­non in Hun­gary and let’s not for­get Aus­tria and Sebas­t­ian Kurz. Most peo­ple are con­cerned with things that direct­ly affect them and not so much with the com­mon good and the com­mu­ni­ty in gen­er­al. Every­thing that goes beyond their own per­son­al inter­ests is not rel­e­vant. They pre­fer to spend their time watch­ing Net­flix, using their mobile phones or being on the com­put­er. Who spends time read­ing a book these days and how can a democ­ra­cy han­dle this infor­ma­tion flood- be it false, cor­rect or per­me­at­ed with doubt- espe­cial­ly if it is dif­fi­cult to tell them apart?

Fur­ther­more, we are expe­ri­enc­ing a shift in pow­er from tra­di­tion­al nation­al gov­ern­ments to pri­vate economies. It could very well be that the new peo­ple in pow­er are called Mark Zucker­berg or Jeff Bezos, for exam­ple. They have the data, they lure peo­ple into their ecosys­tems, from which you hard­ly ever see any­one leav­ing. But, in con­trast to nation­al states, they are not bound by any con­sti­tu­tion to have a fidu­cia­ry duty towards the cit­i­zens. We have to won­der whether Emmanuel Macron or Sebas­t­ian Kurz rep­re­sent a tran­si­tion­al phase to Apple, Face­book and oth­er empires.

Con­verse­ly, the US, and per­haps also the EU, have already recog­nised this prob­lem and are try­ing to halt this mech­a­nism by break­ing up these pow­ers. There have already been some attempts in the US- and they must be tak­en seri­ous­ly. His­to­ry has also shown us that there are pre­de­ces­sors to this trend, such as in the oil indus­try. Of course, these par­al­lels are not a per­fect fit, but, at that time, no one could have imag­ined this sce­nario being what it is. It is entire­ly pos­si­ble that state pow­er is strong enough to put a stop to this ten­den­cy or at least to slow it down. But it is ques­tion­able whether it can suc­ceed in the long term, giv­en the pres­sure applied by the dai­ly use and sig­nif­i­cance of dig­i­tal tools.

Even if these are not par­tic­u­lar­ly pleas­ant thoughts, I still remain opti­mistic. His­to­ry has always shown us that peo­ple- or at least enough peo­ple- have fought against pow­ers or abus­es of pow­er, like Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, and have suc­cess­ful­ly risen up and fought against them in order to get back their dig­ni­ty and free­dom.  I also don’t believe in the end of human­i­ty, even if peo­ple like Elon Musk would like to see a sym­bio­sis between com­put­ers, soft­ware, and the brain.

I don’t want to give up impor­tant legal val­ues which have been guar­an­teed by the con­sti­tu­tion, such as rule of law, democ­ra­cy, free­dom of speech, or indi­vid­ual free­doms, even if voic­es have been raised dur­ing the pan­dem­ic that states like Chi­na have been more suc­cess­ful at this bat­tle. Fun­da­men­tal val­ues are unit­ed in humans and can­not be sep­a­rat­ed from them and are con­tin­gent to their abil­i­ty to live- and no one can con­vince me oth­er­wise. Even if peo­ple at the moment have lost their way, are dis­tract­ed by the media or their abil­i­ty to judge has been impaired by the infor­ma­tion flood or it has made peo­ple less intel­li­gent, I firm­ly believe that his­to­ry will once again show that peo­ple will not put up with this for­ev­er. The only ques­tion which still con­cerns me is:  Where is the bound­ary which peo­ple who are still “free” are able to trans­gress? Where is the point of no return? Do the peo­ple in pow­er have enough data on us? Per­haps the real prob­lem is that we hap­pen to be in this phase. That’s why we need ‑more than ever- to have a fruit­ful dis­cus­sion on which ques­tions need to be asked.

What is going to hap­pen to the peo­ple who need to go into total­ly new pro­fes­sions? What will hap­pen to soci­ety, the com­mu­ni­ty, and our rela­tion­ships with one anoth­er? How should we sup­port the young peo­ple who race off to uni­ver­si­ty think­ing they are guar­an­tee­ing their liveli­hood in this way? No one is talk­ing about this issue, not even the unions or the churches.

We need a dis­cus­sion- now more than ever- con­cern­ing the nature of the human col­lec­tivism in the future. This dis­cus­sion has to take place and has to be organ­ised accord­ing to var­i­ous con­crete sub­jects, such as, for exam­ple, the rule of law, free­dom of speech, pri­va­cy etc.  There have already been dis­cus­sions on these top­ics, but they are not at the fore­front, and giv­en the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, that is a real problem.

Politi­cians are also not hav­ing these dis­cus­sions. As much as I respect our for­mer chan­cel­lor, Angela Merkel, solu­tions were only being dis­cussed, found and put in place which were con­cerned with the here and now, were pal­pa­ble, opti­mistic and care­ful­ly con­sid­ered. But debates, visions, or prospects for the future, how peo­ple relate to one anoth­er, those sorts of things I have hard­ly seen any­one talk­ing about. None of the par­ty plat­forms has a vision. Every­one is talk­ing about secur­ing enough spots for appren­tice­ships, strength­en­ing edu­ca­tion poli­cies, improv­ing the infra­struc­ture and so on. But no one has a clear and com­pre­hen­sive con­cept. No one is talk­ing about Europe and no is think­ing about the changes aris­ing from the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion. Final­ly, no one is offer­ing us solu­tions to the ques­tion of what direc­tion mankind should be taking.

I have the impres­sion that the younger gen­er­a­tion, mean­ing those who are about 20 years of age, are becom­ing more atten­tive and are wak­ing up- and ris­ing up.  We see more and more peo­ple from this age group who do not want to be pushed around by the establishment.

We still have to talk about the con­se­quences for the com­mu­ni­ty. What will it look like in the future and how will it work? Will the inter­ests of some dic­ta­tor become the dri­ving force? Our will we keep the Ago­ra in Athens? I am cer­tain that there will always be the Agora.

I think about the ques­tion mark every day. The Ago­ra as well as the soft fac­tors of life can­not sim­ply dis­ap­pear. We have to keep on talk­ing, open­ing our mouths and debat­ing on the answers together.

Mr Reuter, thank you for shar­ing your reflec­tions on the mean­ing of being human and the human inter­ac­tion in the dig­i­tal age.

Thank you, Dr Cal­daro­la, and I look for­ward to read­ing your upcom­ing inter­views with rec­og­nized experts, delv­ing even deep­er into this fas­ci­nat­ing topic.

About me and my guest

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola, LL.M., MBA is the host of “Duet Interviews”, co-founder and CEO of CU³IC UG, a consultancy specialising in systematic approaches to innovation, such as algorithmic IP data analysis and cross-industry search for innovation solutions.

Cristina is a well-regarded legal expert in licensing, patents, trademarks, domains, software, data protection, cloud, big data, digital eco-systems and industry 4.0.

A TRIUM MBA, Cristina is also a frequent keynote speaker, a lecturer at St. Gallen, and the co-author of the recently published Big Data and Law now available in English, German and Mandarin editions.

Edzard Reuter

Edzard Reuter is a lawyer and, among other companies, worked for Universum Film AG and the Bertelsmann Group from 1964 to 1995. After this time, Mr Reuter joined the Daimler Benz AG and has been one of its directors since 1973. From 1987 he served as CEO for eight years. The top executive is known as the driving force behind the development of Potsdamer Platz and was therefore awarded the title of honorary citizen. In addition, Mr Reuter is the honorary chairman of the supervisory board of the Bankgesellschaft Berlin group as well as an active member of numerous other institutions and foundations, including CARE Germany, the Reutlingen reporting academy and the humanistic Carlo-Schmid Foundation. Since 1995 the Helga and Edzard Reuter Foundation honours people and projects which contribute significantly to peace and understanding among peoples from varying ethnic, cultural or religious backgrounds.

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola, LL.M., MBA is the host of “Duet Interviews”, co-founder and CEO of CU³IC UG, a consultancy specialising in systematic approaches to innovation, such as algorithmic IP data analysis and cross-industry search for innovation solutions.

Cristina is a well-regarded legal expert in licensing, patents, trademarks, domains, software, data protection, cloud, big data, digital eco-systems and industry 4.0.

A TRIUM MBA, Cristina is also a frequent keynote speaker, a lecturer at St. Gallen, and the co-author of the recently published Big Data and Law now available in English, German and Mandarin editions.