Tuesday, 22 June 2021


We have recently discussed what kind of tool would be better to have: a crystal ball, which would tell you the future, if it was possible to build, and would allow you to see in all detail what is going to happen. Or, to have a tool that would allow us to manoeuvre troubled waters and to get around the cliffs we are going to face. It is important to realize that these are two pretty different kinds of tools. We have decided it would be desirable to be able to navigate the 21st century with digital empowerment on all levels and scales (particularly of the civil society).

Let me start by stating that, of course, Big Data, AI, and Computer Simulation of Systems have a lot to offer when it comes to addressing some of our biggest challenges of humanity. So, we should, of course, make good use of the opportunities arising from them.

Recently, there is much excitement for digital avatars and digital twins. Some would go so far to aim for an exact digital copy of the real world which would perhaps even replace analogue systems entirely in the future – in accordance with transhumanist goals such as convergence and transcendence. Personally, I consider such goals not scientifically well-founded, so I suggest to focus now on the goal of creating realistic models of parts of the world instead of exact digital copies. These can certainly be useful. Envisioned applications reach from urban twins to models of the planet to models of individuals, their personality, behavior, body, and health. This is of interest in connection with “smart cities”, climate modeling, and precision medicine.

Sounds probably good to you, but things are trickier than expected, not just because of privacy and security concerns. It is not enough to collect as much data as possible and to have a powerful AI system learn the patterns in the data. Besides incomplete datasets and limited processing power, there are a number of fundamental obstacles: biases, overfitting, the role of randomness, turbulence, the “butterfly effect” of chaos theory, the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, and the undecidability theorem of Gödel, to mention just a few.

So far, Big Data has not made science obsolete, nor do we have a universal AI. And if we had one, this could still be pretty dangerous. Suppose, for example, we would task an intelligent system to solve the sustainability problems of the planet. It might figure out that the easiest solution would be to kill a considerable number of people. And if it was just smart enough, humans may not even understand what is going on, given that AI systems are pretty much black boxes to them.

In a highly networked, complex world, where almost everything has side effects, feedback effects or cascading effects, a powerful tool, particularly when applied on a global scale, may cause serious, large-scale damage. This is the more likely in a time where people argue with trolley problems and lesser evils. According to this logic, if there is just a big enough disaster, problem, or threat, any ethical principle or law might be overruled, including human rights and even the right to life. In view of the Covid-19 pandemic, we may, in fact, be in the middle of such a scenario already.

Obviously, such an approach can easily and unintentionally end with crimes against humanity. As history shows, neither companies nor states nor legal frameworks are reliable safeguards against terrible misuse, accidents, or side effects. Not even the UN may be enough to ensure a save use of such tools. So, to be able to unleash the full potential of Big Data and AI for humanity and nature, we would need a particular technological framework and an entirely new kind of multi-lateralism. We would need platforms that are neither owned nor controlled by individual companies nor countries nor consortia of them, and would also not stand above our fundamental values and the rule of law.

One would need safety precautions such as decentralization, distributed control, a large amount of informational self-determination, protection from misuse, and compensation if something went wrong. New forms of organizations and social innovation are needed, to unlock the potential of technology safely and responsibly. We certainly can’t afford to open Pandora’s box. We have enough problems already…

Also, we should carefully consider alternative uses of technology. I would just like to mention the idea of creating a socio-ecological finance system. A finance system, which would use the Internet of Things to measure externalities that decisions of people and companies cause. The measurement of externalities would define multiple new currencies, which could be used to incentivize positive behavioral change. This novel real-time feedback and coordination system is inspired by nature, which has already managed to develop a circular economy based on self-organization and distributed control. Hence, introducing such real-time feedbacks into our socio-economic system is expected to create forces promoting a sustainable re-organization. A sustainable circular and sharing economy would result through a co-evolutionary process. It would be a system avoiding coercion and mind control. It would be a system consistent with freedom, self-determination, creativity and innovation, with human rights and democracy. This is actually the path to sustainability I would take. Anyway, these remarks are just to point out that our situation is not desperate. We do have options – but we also have choices to make and action to take.