A question that not only science fiction lovers should ask is: What future do we want to live in?.
The techno-optimism of Google – now called Alphabet – is as limitless as it is alarming.
Sooner or later, the premise goes, the search engine company that is spreading its wings ever wider to insert itself into every nook and cranny of our planet, will solve all the problems of humanity. This story underpins virtually every single news release issued by the company.
This is no abstract or poetic matter – quite the opposite. Search engines know almost everything about us. It wasn’t always this way, but we have been living in a very real Big Brother world for quite some time now.
George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” written in 1948, was meant as a warning. More and more often, however, one gets the feeling that the bestseller was actually used as an instruction manual.
Today’s data-driven world has two main principles: “Data is the new oil” and “Knowledge is power.” Little by little, and almost unnoticed, this has created a fundamentally new society.
As underscored by the emergence of Bitcoin, there is a new currency: “Data.” It literally replaces classical money. But this is not all.
Is Google now creating a digital God?
With its Loon project, a project to provide Internet access in remote areas by means of high-altitude balloons, the company tries to be omnipresent. With its search engine, language assistants and measurement sensors in our rooms, Google wants to be omniscient, too.
While the company is not yet omnipotent, it is at least answering 95% of our questions. And with personalized information, Google is increasingly steering our thinking and actions.
Furthermore, the Calico project – a project to combat aging and related diseases – is trying to make people immortal. Sounds good, but wouldn’t Google become the judge over life and death in an ‘over-populated’ world?
Nevertheless, some already seem to dream of a digital God who will guide our human destiny, and propose to establish artificial intelligence as religion. But what for some is the invention of God through human ingenuity must be the ultimate blasphemy for Christians – sort of the rise of the antichrist.
Democracy under threat
While this process is unfolding, democracy is becoming a collateral damage. It is defamed as outdated technology. Witness, for example, the smart city project in Toronto.
Alphabet, Google’s mother company, will run a 3.3 million square feet part of the city. With this, Alphabet will have its own “urban living laboratory,” in which it will be able to experiment with new smart (surveillance-based) systems and planning techniques, and study how people are affected.
The issue is: people have no say in this. They are like laboratory rats. As, in today’s digital world, “code is law,” i.e. Alphabet’s algorithms will determine what is possible and what is not.
The promise of the folks at Google is nothing short of engineering paradise on Earth – a smarter planet where everything will be automated with artificial intelligence (AI). If only we leave them to their devices and turn ourselves into willing guinea pigs.
Even the experts worry
Even in the Silicon Valley, the heart of the digital revolution, experts start to worry. Elon Musk, for example, fears that super-intelligent AI systems could become the greatest threat to humanity.
Bill Gates as well had to admit that he was in the camp of those who were worried about super-intelligence. The famous physicist Stephen Hawking, too, warned that humans would not be able to compete with the development of AI.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak agreed: “Computers are going to take over from humans, no question,” he said, but: “Will we be the gods? Will we be the family pets? Or will we be ants that get stepped on? I don’t know…”
At least Jürgen Schmidhuber, the German AI pioneer, believes to know that, from a robot’s perspective, we will be like cats.
Seriously, is this how paradise looks like? Take a walk along San Francisco’s Market Street where absolute wealth and absolute poverty meet, and decide yourself.
What future do we want?
A question that not only science fiction lovers should ask is: What future do we really want to live in?
Never before have we had a better chance to build a world of our liking. But for this we have to take the future into our hands. It’s high time to overcome our self-imposed digital immaturity.
To free ourselves from the digital shackles, digital literacy and enlightenment are needed. So far, we are living in a market-compliant democracy, where the markets are driven by technology.
Instead, we should build an economy that serves our goals. Technology should be a means of achieving this.
But that requires a fundamental redesign of our monetary, financial and economic system based on the principle of value-sensitive design. In The Globalist, I have recently outlined how this could be done.
So, a better future is possible! Let’s demand this better future! Let’s co-create it! What are we waiting for?
***Dirk Helbing is Professor of Computational Social Science at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences and affiliate of the Computer Science Department at ETH Zurich.
In January 2014, Professor Helbing received an honorary PhD from Delft University of Technology (TU Delft). Since June 2015, he is affiliate professor at the faculty of Technology, Policy and Management at TU Delft, where he leads the PhD school in “Engineering Social Technologies for a Responsible Digital Future.”
Helbing’s published work includes more than ten papers in Nature, Science and PNAS. He has won various prizes, including the Idee Suisse Award. He also o-founded the Competence Center for Coping with Crises in Complex Socio-Economic Systems, the Risk Center, the Institute for Science, Technology and Policy (ISTP) and the Decision Science Laboratory (DeSciL).
While coordinating the FuturICT initiative (www.futurict.eu), he helped to establish data science and computational social science in Europe, as well as global systems science. A further result is the Nervousnet platform (nervousnet.info).
Helbing is an elected member of the German Academy of Sciences “Leopoldina” and the World Academy of Art and Science.