Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Birth of a Digital God

By Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich/TU Delft/Complexity Science Hub Vienna)

It is finally happening! At the annual meeting of the Swiss Civil Society Association on November 11, Professor Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht gave a memorable speech – a “mass,” as some listeners thought. It was not just about trying to create a super-intelligent system with consciousness. No, the goal was now to create a God-like being with superhuman knowledge and abilities to guide our human destiny. However, there is the risk that this God might turn against humanity, he continued, even though it was man-made. The statement that this should free us from Biblical sin was even more surprising.

Gumbrecht is not the first one to raise the subject of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as God. Just recently, the Guardian, under the title ”Deus Ex Machina,” announced that ex-Google collaborator Levandowski wanted to register Artificial Intelligence as religion.[1] Shortly later, Google announced its latest triumph. They had succeeded in building an AI system that learned to win the strategy game “Go” by itself – so well in fact that it could beat the world champion. At the same time, it was suggested that one had now found an approach that would sooner or later solve all the problems of humanity, including those that surpassed our intellectual capacities.

Just a few days later, Spiegel Online wrote: ”God does not need any teachers.”[2] Already in 2013, I discussed the opportunities and risks of the information age in an article entitled “Google as God?”[3] Furthermore, in 2015, the Digital Manifesto asked: “Let us suppose there was a super-intelligent machine with God-like knowledge and superhuman abilities: would we follow its instructions?”[4]

Some readers found the question ridiculous at that time. Not anymore! Because search engines and intelligence services know almost everything about us. We have been living in a Big Brother world already for some time. George Orwell's dystopian novel “1984,” written in 1948, was meant as a warning. But more and more often we get the feeling 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. There is a new currency, “data,” which replaces classical money. There is a new economic system: the “attention economy,” where our attention is sold by auctions in split seconds. In addition, the companies of “surveillance capitalism” are measuring our behavior, our personality and our lives in ever more detail. In times of free services, we have become a product ourselves. Last but not least, the principle “code is law” has established a new legal system, which bypasses our parliament.

Are we in danger of losing our liberties, human rights and participation step by step, almost imperceptibly? Are we giving up on things that are important to us, just because we fear terrorism, climate change, and cybercrime? Are self-determined citizens in a danger to be turned into remotely controlled subjects?

In fact, this isn’t just fantasy! China is already testing a Citizen Score,[5] i.e. every citizen is rated, has a certain number of points. Minus points will punish those who do not pay for their loan immediately, cross the street during a red light, have the “wrong” friends or neighbors, or reads critical news. The Citizen Score then determines the job opportunities, loan conditions, access to services, and mobility restrictions. Great Britain seems to go even a step further. It measures its citizens including the videos they watch and the music they hear. The system is called “Karma Police.”[6] So, will it punish thought crimes, you may ask? Or is “Karma Police” a kind of “Judgment Day” waiting to come down on us any time?

Do we have to accept this? Computers make better decisions, it is often said. In fact, computers have been the better chess players for years. In many areas they are better workers. They don’t get tired, do not complain, do not go on vacation, and do not have to pay taxes and contributions to social security. Soon they will be better drivers. They diagnose cancer better than physicians and answer questions better than people – at least those that have already an answer.

When will robots become our judge and hangman? When will they start to “fix the overpopulation problem”? (Autonomous killer robots with face recognition probably exist already or could at least exist soon – see the recent movies on slaughterbots and robot swarms.[7]) When will robots replace us? Not just our work… A newspaper article recently suggested that the descendants of humans will be machines.[8] In other words, humanity will be replaced by robots. Is this really our human destiny? Should we build a future for robots or for humans? Isn’t it time to wake up from the transhumanist dream?[9]

Back to the initial question: Is Google creating a digital God? With its Loon project, the company at least tries to be omnipresent. With its search engine, language assistants and measurement sensors in our rooms, Google wants to be omniscient. While the company is not yet omnipotent, it is at least answering 95 percent of our questions, and with personalized information, Google is increasingly steering our thinking and actions. Furthermore, the Calico project is also trying to make people immortal. Therefore, in an overpopulated world, would Google be the judge over life and death?

Whatever, someone recently suggested an AI God would soon write a new Bible.[10] So would he (or she) set the rules we would have to live by? Do we soon have to worship an AI algorithm and submit ourselves to it? No question, some already seem to dream of a digital God who will guide our human destiny. What for some is the invention of God through human ingenuity, however, must be the ultimate blasphemy for Christians – in some sense the rise of the Antichrist.

Whatever one may think about all this, the phrase “knowledge is power” has certainly blown some people’s minds. Google, IBM and Facebook are said to be working on a new operating system for society.[11] Democracy is defamed as outdated technology.[12] They want to engineer paradise on Earth – a smarter planet where everything will be automated. So far, however, the plan did not really work out.[13] The world’s cities with the highest quality of life are located everywhere, but in the leading IT nations. And even in the Silicon Valley, the heart of the digital revolution, and other IT hotspots, experts start to worry…

Elon Musk, for example, fears that Artificial Intelligence could become the greatest threat to humanity. Even Bill Gates had to admit that he was in the camp of those who were worried about superintelligence. The famous physicist Stephen Hawking warned that humans would not be able to compete with the development of Artificial Intelligence. 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 be the family pets? Or will be ants that get stepped on? I don’t know…”[14] Jürgen Schmidhuber, German AI pioneer, believes to know – from a robot’s perspective, we will be like cats.[15]

Of course, the worry that technology could turn against us is already old. Besides George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” warned us of the danger of rising totalitarianism. Suddenly people also remember “The Machine Stops” by Edward Morgan Forster in 1909 (!). More recent books are Dave Egger’s “The Circle,” “Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari and Joel Cachelin’s “Internet God.” If you like science fiction, you might love “QualityLand” by Marc-Uwe Kling or “iGod” by Willemijn Dicke.

A question, which not only science fiction lovers should ask, is: What future do we 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-conform democracy, where the markets are driven by technology. Instead, we should build an economy that serves to reach the goals of people and society. Technology should be a means of achieving this. This 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.[16] Maybe you have your own ideas of how to use Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. But in any case, a better future is possible! Let’s demand this better future! Let’s co-create it! What are we waiting for?


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/28/artificial-intelligence-god-anthony-levandowski
[2] http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/technik/kuenstliche-intelligenz-gott-braucht-keine-lehrmeister-kolumne-a-1175130.html
[3] https://www.nzz.ch/google-als-gott-1.18049950
[4] http://www.spektrum.de/thema/das-digital-manifest/1375924, English translation: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/will-democracy-survive-big-data-and-artificial-intelligence/
[5] https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21711902-worrying-implications-its-social-credit-project-china-invents-digital-totalitarian
[6] https://theintercept.com/2015/09/25/gchq-radio-porn-spies-track-web-users-online-identities/
[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CO6M2HsoIA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGAk5gRD-t0
[8] https://www.nzz.ch/feuilleton/unsere-nachfahren-werden-maschinen-sein-ld.1322780
[9] https://www.nzz.ch/meinung/kommentare/die-gefaehrliche-utopie-der-selbstoptimierung-wider-den-transhumanismus-ld.1301315, http://privacysurgeon.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Human-manifesto_26_short-1.pdf
[10] https://venturebeat.com/2017/10/02/an-ai-god-will-emerge-by-2042-and-write-its-own-bible-will-you-worship-it/
[11] http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/medien/google-gruendet-in-den-usa-government-innovaton-lab-13852715.html, https://www.pcworld.com/article/3031137/forget-trump-and-clinton-ibms-watson-is-running-for-president.html, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/17/facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-rule-world-president, http://theconversation.com/if-facebook-ruled-the-world-mark-zuckerbergs-vision-of-a-digital-future-73459
12] Hencken, Randolph. 2014. In: Mikrogesellschaften. Hat die Demokratie ausgedient? Capriccio. Video, veröffentlicht am 15.5.2014. Autor: Joachim Gaertner. München: Bayerischer Rundfunk.
[13] https://www.wiltonpark.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/WP1449-Report.pdf
[14] https://www.computerworld.com/article/2901679/steve-wozniak-on-ai-will-we-be-pets-or-mere-ants-to-be-squashed-our-robot-overlords.html
[15] http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/ueberwindung-des-menschen-durch-selbstlernende-maschinen-15309705.html
[16] https://www.theglobalist.com/author/dirk-helbing/





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