Man and machine: Who is programming whom?

Ranga Yogeshwar as keynote speaker at solutions.hamburg

Ranga Yogeshwar – science journalist, graduate physicist­ and author – has been known to a large audience for many years,­ especially from his numerous television programmes (including Quarks, W wie Wissen and­ Globus). He has been awarded numerous prizes for his general understanding of the natural sciences. The former FAZ editor Frank Schirrmacher said about him: “He is a unique translator of­ science into language and more, he has­ imported ­the best virtues of­ science into journalism”.

Therefore, it was a special pleasure to hear him as keynote speaker of the Strategy Day at solutions.hamburg. In­ an extremely entertaining lecture on the subject of “Man and Machine”, he devoted over 45 minutes to the subject of­ digitization and the consequences for people and their­ coexistence. How has technological progress already changed us? Where do we expect to develop over the next few years? Where are the opportunities and risks? Ranga Yogeshwar granted insights and answers:

Digitalization has­ led to a massive­ change in processes over the past 10 years. Disruptive­ technologies gradually eliminate everything that seems too cumbersome. The tedious communication with the taxi control center is replaced­ by services like Uber and mytaxi. Many­ processes are also completely dematerialized, for example music is no longer pressed ­onto records but streamed. The true quality of digitization is that the marginal costs of distribution tend to collapse.

Communication and Media

Furthermore, the topology of communication is changing. In the past, people spoke of “spectators” and “listeners”, which implies a certain passivity. There was the producer and the consumer. In the future everyone will be the same, everybody is a producer. In social media, even today individuals broadcast so strongly that they become mass media. Just think of the American president or – in a­ more weakened form – some of the top “influencers”.

But when everyone becomes a transmitter, the direction of flow of the information is reversed. A tweet becomes a headline and then a whole news program, the media world is turned upside down. Ranga Yogeshwar notes that the shift from a single sender to a system where everyone is a sender is partly profound and religious­: the idea that “there is someone up there” is lost. The Archangel Michael, as the one who decides between heaven and hell, is a basic idea that has been­ deeply rooted in us for centuries.

“We’re always looking for­ institutions, for someone or something up there, we­ always need someone in between.” Accordingly, we need­ banks for money transfers, notaries for land purchases and publishers to decide which information­ is printed and which is not. For the future, the science journalist expects that­ other processes such as blockchain will increasingly replace all these intermediaries. The processes will change fundamentally.

In future communication claims can be made that cannot be verified.

But according to Yogeshwar, this new system of­ communication also entails a danger: “In this communication process,­ claims can be made that cannot be verified, either by individuals or by platforms that cannot be prosecuted, so-called sham media. This can already be observed in countries such as the USA, where there is a fog of fake news that increasingly envelops all other elements of democracy.

The MIT has found that fake or false news reaches 1500 users 6 times faster than true news (“How lies spread”, Science 3/2018). If­ you add the fact into account that the economization of the media has pushed those articles into the foreground which are frequently clicked, this explains the fertile­ breeding ground for fake news. They are presented in an interesting way­, therefore are clicked more often and thus spread faster.

Media is somewhat different from shoe polish. Yogeshwar argues that a society should be more careful with the culture of the media if it does not want to be incapacitated. As grandchildren of the Enlightenment, we should all argue that facts still play a key role and that we should not be lost in the fog of illusions. There is just a growing awareness that social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Co. are obviously fertile breeding grounds for something that is not necessarily true.

Artificial Intelligence

Of course, digitization is not possible without IT. Artificial intelligence plays a central role here. Due to the immense advances in technology, computer performance is rising by leaps and bounds. This makes it possible for the first time to map neuronal networks outside living organisms using a computer. They learn to do what our ­brain is extremely good at: recognizing patterns and­ deriving abstractions. For the first time there are areas in which computers are better than the human brain, be it­ chess or the board game Go. But Yogeshwar is­ also convinced that­ they will quickly overtake us in other areas, such as translating languages.

Chatbots can order a pizza so that nobody knows if it’s a maschine or a human.

Today virtual assistants or chatbots can order pizzas far more realistically­ than Alexa & Co. They make reservations for tables in the restaurant and respond individually and situatively to the person they are talking to. The contributions to the conversation today are­ already so real that it is­ not clear to­ the human conversation partner­ on the telephone whether there is also a human or a machine at the other end. Soon you will call a hotline and say afterwards: “The­ consultation was so fast and so competent, it must have been a machine”.

Yogeshwar rightly points out that completely new questions arise when the computer can no longer be distinguished from human beings: Does the computer have to identify itself as such? How can man know whether he is talking to a human or a computer? Does he need to know this? Who is responsible for the operation of the machine, who is liable? Completely new legal frameworks need to be created and how they are to be enforced needs to be clarified.

The personal book

From his point of view, digitization is particularly exciting in areas where different disciplines merge, such as biology, software and electronics. In an impressive example Yogeshwar is developing­ the book of the future: It will be­ an eReader because the distribution of printed books is no longer worthwhile. The next­ generation readers­ have an integrated camera that automatically scrolls through eye tracking when you­ arrive at the­ bottom of the page. ­So the reader is being watched. Eye tracking will also mean that in future Internet advertising will only be paid for if it­ has ­actually­ been viewed.

Cameras already exist that also measure pupillary dilation when we experience something exciting. The book we are reading can thus­ be optimized due to the monitoring by the camera. ­Whenever the camera­ detects­ that­ the reader is particularly responsive to what is being read via pupil dilatation, the progress of the remaining part of the­ book­ can be­ adjusted accordingly. The book becomes more and more personal, it is written individually for the reader.

We will read books for the book to do a medical diagnosis.

Yogeshwar spins this thread further and expects us to read books – consciously or unconsciously – in order to recognize diseases in the future. After a few chapters, the book may call us and tell us that there are certain anomalies and that it has already arranged an appointment with a neurologist. The date is already­ entered in your personal diary. The book is not a normal book, it is a diagnostic tool of a pharmaceutical company, which recognizes first signs of Parkinson’s disease by means of eye movements, micro rhythms etc. What sounds like distant dreams of the future has already largely become reality. Today it is already possible to predict with a 98% probability whether someone will develop Parkinson’s disease in the future using the Parkinson’s Voice Initiative.

Given the myriad­ applications of digitization in the medical field, it’s no surprise that corporations like Google and Amazon are making huge investments in this area. Who­ has the­ most or the­ best data will­ win­ the race. ­Digitization therefore also means that single companies will become very large, because many small amounts of data­ make­ no sense in ­times of digitization.

Data and responsibility

Yogeshwar argues for thinking about what­ technological progress­ means for mankind? How do we handle the data? We install microphones and cameras and have ourselves voluntarily monitored by Internet companies. Google and Amazon are simultaneously filing patents to filter out moods and disputes from conversations. Today’s handling of­ private data has become an absolute farce. Since the Cambridge Analytica­ scandal, it has become clear that social networks also have the potential to­ be used for manipulation in the­ democratic sense.

Due to the speed of development of­ technology, he­ fears, democracies can easily begin to wiggle before we are really aware of­ the danger. We should think about who the winners and losers of­ progress are.

Who are the winners and who are loosers of digitization?

There are many in society who no longer know where their place in the future will be. The change is already being felt in other countries. How­ long will a country be a democracy? Technological progress in the hands of democracies may still work, but democracy does not prevail everywhere in the world. What will the rest of the world do with the possibilities of digitization?

For the first time ever, communication and knowledge levels around the world are symmetrical. With an Internet connection – provided it is not censored – one has the same information in Mumbai as in Berlin. This­ offers risks, but also opportunities. What it requires, however, is a new attitude on the part of man towards technology. Ranga Yogeshwar leads Pablo Picasso’s sentence, which­ can also be seen as a guiding principle for our path into a new digital world:

This is the essence of modern man,
who in all fear of letting go,
learns the grace of being hold
in the emergence of new possibilities.
(Pablo Picasso)

Many thanks to Ranga Yogheshwar for this inspiring thoughts about a very near future!

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