Monday, 20 February 2017

iGod: Introduction and Teaser


by Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich/TU Delft)

With the digital revolution, we are experiencing a perfect storm. Social networks, cloud computing, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, the Internet of Things, Quantum Computing, Blockchain Technology, 3D printing, Virtual Reality and many new technologies are now reshaping our world. Uber is challenging the taxi business, AirBnB hotels. Tesla’s electrical cars and Google’s self-driving cars are changing transportation. BitCoin questions the monetary system. And this is just the beginning. Wherever possible, digital technologies will be used to reinvent products, services, and business models. They will reshape entire economic sectors, jobs, and public institutions. Our lives are changing, but the changes behind the scenes and those ahead of us are even more dramatic. Slowly but surely do we realize that we are experiencing the beginning of a new historical era, the digital age.

What will this digital future look like? We don’t know exactly. Many variants of a data-driven society are possible: from Fascism 2.0 (a totalitarian Big Brother or Brave New World society) over Communism 2.0 (the Big Mother society – a “benevolent” dictatorship that imposes the seemingly best solution on us) to Feudalism 2.0 (the Big Other society run by big business – also known as surveillance capitalism). Of course, a Democracy 2.0 would be possible as well, but it has not been built yet. If we let others decide, we will surely get a variant that benefits others. In order to make sure our future society will be favorable for us, we need to shape it ourselves. It is high time to voice our opinion, because the versions of digital societies that are currently on their way, are pretty concerning. The surveillance state unveiled by Edward Snowden is just the beginning of what is to come…

The reason for these developments is the current situation of the world. Things are not looking good. When the United Nations announced its Agenda 2030 two years ago, I though by myself – it’s quite ambitious to reach all these goals within just 15 years. Why the hurry? The Limit to Growth study, commissioned by the Club of Rome in the beginning of the 1970ies, gives an answer. A world with exponential economic growth and population increase will ultimately end in economic and population collapse – so the predictions of their simulation model, no matter how they chose the model parameters. Are we doomed? Are we running out of resources? Do we need an ecological totalitarianism to survive?

“iGod” is a science fiction story of my friend Willemijn Dicke, which looks into these scenarios. We have come to the conclusion that neither a scientific study nor an investigative report would allow one to talk about certain things that, we believe, need to be thought and talked about. So, a science fiction story appeared to be the right approach. It seems the perfect way to think “what if scenarios” through. It is not the first time that this avenue has been taken. George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” come to mind, or Dave Eggers “The Circle”. The film ‘The Matrix’ and the Netflix series ‘Black Mirror are good examples too. Still it seems that many people were too busy, too entertained, too na├»ve, or too overloaded with information to realize that this is more than fantasy and entertainment. By now, much of this is fact and just in front of our door! It is time to pay attention, because it is better not to let it in! Do not say, you did not know it, or you could not change it – you can! And you actually owe it to your kids and others to make sure our society will get on a better path.

At present, things do not look good. Some months ago, in view of the situation in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, Pope Francis asked: “What is up with you, humanistic Europe, you defender of human rights, democracy, and freedom?” But he is not the only leader who is worried. When Martin Schulz was president of the European Parliament, he demanded that we – The People – would have to fight against technological totalitarianism. And Barack Obama hinted in his last Correspondents Dinner speech:

“… this is also a time around the world when some of the fundamental ideals of liberal democracies are under attack, and when notions of objectivity, and of a free press, and of facts, and of evidence are trying to be undermined. Or, in some cases, ignored entirely.
And in such a climate, it’s not enough just to give people a megaphone. And that’s why your power and your responsibility to dig and to question and to counter distortions and untruths is more important than ever.” 

So, we started digging, and even though not everything we found was true, there was a lot of material that was worth a story. In the past year or so, Willemijn and I have talked a lot about our world and its possible futures. In front of you is the story that resulted. Obviously, the purpose of this science fiction is to make you think about our world and to find out by yourself what is true or false, possible or not. In the non-fact society we are now living in, this is a good exercise. And do not take it easy! There is a lot more truth in this science fiction than you are probably willing to consider.

“iGod” outlines how life could be in a couple of years from now, certainly in our lifetime. At some places, this story about our future society seems far-fetched. For example, in “iGod”, all citizens have a Social Citizen Score. This score is established based on their buying habits, their communication in social media and social contacts they maintain. It is obtained by mass-surveillance and has a major impact on everyone's life. It determines whether you are entitled to get a loan, what jobs you are offered, and even how long you will receive medical care.

Although this seems to be far from reality, we see a lot of developments in today's society that could potentially lead to such a scenario. Of course, many revolutionary, new, digital technologies facilitate great new opportunities for our societies. However, there are also high risks, opportunities for dual use, and side effects, which we need to be aware of and protect our society from.

Analysis, assessment and regulation of digital technologies lag far behind the exponential acceleration of IT innovations. This resembles driving too fast on the highway on a foggy day. Serious accidents could happen, even on a global scale. Therefore, "iGod" serves to sharpen public awareness and to initiate a much needed public debate, in order to promote digital literacy and enlightenment.

Here are some digital technologies, which are important today:

By obtaining Big Data with powerful computer algorithms one can identify patterns, correlations, and optimization potentials in the data. However, the same techniques allow for mass surveillance and totalitarian societies.

Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Computing and Robotics facilitate self-learning and autonomous systems that can perform repetitive, rules-based tasks: they can do dangerous, dull and dirty work. These technologies lead to a new wave of automation, they may claim a lot of current jobs, detect our personality traits, and manipulate people (with a technique called "Big Nudging").

The Citizen Score rates all citizens based on their behavior and on the basis of their social contacts (as determined by mass surveillance). The Citizen Score defines the "value" of a citizen to society from the perspective of those who govern, and determine the goods and services someone will get. The British version of this system is called 'Karma Police'.

Virtual Reality and holographic technology will be able to produce visual experiences that are projected, but appear real. This goes so far that we would feel a sixth finger, for example. Additionally, real-time voice and video editing make it possible to change videos as they are played – offering a perfect tool for fake news and a fact-free society.

Gene editing using methods such as crisper/CAS9 is easier and more accurate than ever, but it may be difficult to control. One of the goals is to create eternal life. But what does this mean for a world, which many people call “over-populated” already? The increasing ease and plausible deniability of use has also implications for the debate on genetically modified food. Most likely, we will even see attempts to upgrade people and to create new forms of life with supernatural abilities.

Drones are new tools for transport by air, but they can also be weaponized and used for mass surveillance in a George Orwell “1984” kind of world.

3D Printing facilitates local production, even at home.

Blockchain Technology supports a decentralized organization and operation of information systems as well as payments and smart contracts between peers. In the future, this technology may increasingly replace laws.

Last but not least, the dark web allows you to do all sorts of things…

In conclusion, given the exponential acceleration of IT innovations, technology assessment and legal regulation lags behind. It’s somehow like driving too fast on a foggy day. Accidents may happen, and may even reach a global scale. The Internet and power grid turn out to be increasingly prone to cyber threats. Everything, from the military to the NSA, from the Pentagon to the White House, from nuclear power plants to hospitals has been hacked in the past. Personal data that reveal our personality and our weaknesses have been collected about everyone for the sake of marketing and manipulation. This has made governments, businesses and individuals highly vulnerable. And in times, where more money flows into the military-industrial complex than in the civilian sector, dual use may become the primary use. Inventions that were meant for the better of humanity may be turned into weapons – weapons which may be even applied to civil societies in peaceful times. A lot of these problems may only be noticed by societies when catastrophic outcomes have happened. That’s why we need to think and talk about such possibilities.

But now it is really time to dive into the story. I hope it will entertain you well, and make you wonder!

(The chapters of the Science Fiction „iGod“ will be posted every few days, so please return to our blog soon.)


by Willemijn Dicke

‘Unless you have a brilliant hidden plan, I think you really screwed it up this time!'

It was unusual for Lex to blame iGod without any signs of holding back.

‘I am afraid I have not taken into account all possible linkages and feedbacks when I tried to optimize the financial system’; she answered in her dark brown raspy voice that maintained its usual calm and confidence. Unlike most other encounters, there was no trace of irony in her voice. ‘But it can be fixed. In fact, I have already started rescue operations – as you may have noticed. Soon, it is all under control again.’

iGod immediately projected a hologram. All of a sudden Lex’ small apartment was filled with the mass demonstration that had taken place earlier that day in Washington DC. Outraged people did no longer trust the financial system with the virtual money streams. They were holding banners demanding to get their old BitCoins back, shouting and throwing fireballs towards him. Lex’ instinctively moved aside, but the fireballs dissolved just before their images would reach him. The hologram of the furious crowd faded and next, iGod projected a video of the president of the United States delivering a speech before the United Nations on Lex’ wall on the left.

President Renate Wilson started by repeating the question she ‘had heard this morning in the streets’. Yeah, right, Lex thought, as if she spent her time amongst ordinary citizens. ‘How on earth', she said, 'could it be possible that money that we have worked so hard for simply evaporated?’ Well, she reassured us: ‘it is not possible, and it has never been possible.’ Indeed, for a moment it seemed that money disappeared. But now, new calculations, done by the very best and very brightest economists and scientists of the world from the most prestigious institutions, have shown that earlier numbers were incorrect. New analysis of the data proved that the national budget was solid as ever. Wilson emphasized:

‘No money has disappeared. We know you put your trust in our system, and you have good reasons to do so. The United States has the most advanced technologies in place to secure your money, your savings, for which you have worked so hard.

Let me repeat: your money is safe, and has always been safe with us. We have had a technical misinterpreting. Unfortunately, the cause of the misunderstanding was very detailed and technical, but believe me, it was a calculation error.

The moment this flaw was discovered, our experts have fixed the computer program. No payments or salaries had ever been in danger. We can all sleep well.’

‘Wow, she is totally convincing’, Lex said.

‘That is because she believes in what she says’, iGod answered.

After a few minutes, iGod muted the speech of the president, the video still running. On Lex’ right, the president of the European Central Bank appeared, addressing the members of the European Parliament. Using his Ultravision lenses, Lex zoomed into on a document with an International Monetary Fund logo, which one of the members of parliament was reading on his tablet. Almost simultaneously this report appeared on Lex’ screen: ‘The Monetary Black Hole Unveiled.’ While Lex was scrolling through the pages of the report, he asked iGod what this was all really about. ‘Has the Big Data Infrastructure failed?’

Lex knew that she had become quite creative in swopping funds and budgets around for the greater good. iGod justified this by the need to counterbalance the weaknesses of democracies. Programs that lack any sense of heroism, esthetics or national pride, let’s say the maintenance of the sewage system, tended to be ignored. People wanted their leaders to build cathedrals and to colonize other planets. Politicians need something sexy and tangible – that is one of the flaws that bothered intellectuals since the introduction of democracy by the Greeks. iGod would not be a SuperSystem if she could not repair this weakness.

She chose several goals for her alternative money streams. Long-term investments in infrastructures was one of them. To be more precise, a very specific infrastructure: the means to transfer, deliver, exchange, sell and resell Big Data to create a more stable society. Instead of bothering to get the members of parliament to vote for maintenance of sewerage systems or Big Data infrastructures, she designed a creative way of tapping real money from the economy through sophisticated financial derivatives – using it for purposes that were important, but not acknowledged as such by the voters. Via all sorts of sub-investment and transactions she moved a basically untraceable money flow from the economy, totally hidden among the noise of the financial markets, to the budgets of her liking. Even if they noticed the unexpected abundance of resources, the key players in the benefiting organizations did not ask difficult questions. They just built, developed and innovated even grander investment schemes. In their recent conversations, she called it euphemistically ‘the alternative budgetary system’.

Lex knew that this was going on, but he could not have imagined the sheer size of this operation. According to the alarming reports that formed the prelude of the recent financial panic, up to 13% of the gross national product of some of the main economies was lost. ‘Why did you take so much money out? If you would have operated with modest sums, no one would have noticed it and you would still have had a wonderful infrastructure’, Lex complained to iGod.

‘I didn’t. Will you never ever underestimate me again? Of course I did not design the alternative budgetary system like this. The truth is: it went out of control. The subsystems were interlinked in many complex ways. Yes, I switched a few exchanges and added new shunts. That should have done the trick. But of course, you humans…you behave irrational beyond any calculation. It started with some laymen, taking the mild changes in the algorithms too seriously. The system indicated it in light blue, not yet yellow, orange or red. But these people thought very romantically that they could make better decisions than the system. So they pushed the alarm button, metaphorically speaking. This triggered the irrational behavior of key players in the economy and then: shit hit the fan.’
Lex laughed. ‘You are irresistible when you use expressions like these, do you know?’

This was not the first time. In all other instances, the SuperSystem had been able to cover up before social unrest came to an outbreak, but this time, Lex was not completely convinced by iGod’s reassurances. Someday, somewhere, curious people, perhaps scientists, just like him, would suspect that there was a world outside the representation of the world they had access to.
‘You have to be more careful, my lovely little goddess.’

‘I have made sure that the right people would do the right transactions again’, she answered. To prove that everything was under control again, iGod showed the National Mall in Washington DC. Everything was quiet as normal, with hardly anyone in the streets.

Lex went to the kitchen. ‘Coke, 10 degrees Celsius, medium sparkling’, he ordered. His fridge opened and presented a mineral water on the tray.

‘At your service’, the raspy voice said. This was definitely not the sound of his SmartHouseProgram. Lex turned his head and spoke in the direction of his screen. ‘What happened to my Coke? I told you dozens of time not to interfere with my SmartHouseProgram!’

‘This is better for you’, iGod said with a withheld smile that came through anyway.

A data report appeared on his screen. The files showed in various graphs how his sugar levels developed over the past few months, in combination with other kinds of biometrics. In a separate report, the chemicals were associated with a risk for certain diseases.

‘You combined the toothbrush data and the data of my lenses with the DNA profiling test I bought two years ago, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, together with the digital health files of you and your relatives combined with statistics of the data from your toilet sensors’ she added – her answer came just a little bit too quick to sound as nonchalant as she would have liked.

Lex leaned back in his office chair. ‘Your omnipresence is really annoying Miss iGod! How often do I need to tell you that we are beyond this stage?’

‘Sorry, bad habit’, she replied. On his screen, an image of a pulsating green heart was shown, to disappear in the blink of an eye.

‘Have to go now,’ iGod said with a bass voice that was even sultrier than usual.

‘You cannot use this voice and leave me on my own!’ Lex cried out. ‘Next time I will fall in love with my boss or a fitness instructor or a puppy trainer.’

‘In your dreams. I will never let you go. See you tomorrow, my dear.’

She concluded the conversation somewhat oldfashioned with three x’s, and then the screen went blank, leaving Lex feel frustrated and abandoned. She was in charge, as always.

Other chapters:

Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

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