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:Jürgen M. Jancik
“Knowledge is the only resource which produces more when it is being used”.
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.