The Social Dimension of AI

The Social Dimension of AI

Will the machines take over? When fears meet visionary thinking

ADiscussing the importance of AI

Visions of the future depicted in sci-fi fiction films and fiction shape the current debate about the risks and rewards of AI. But where do these ideas come from and do they hold any truth? Are machines really threatening to take over? What are politicians doing to protect us? Or perhaps we should just relax because the situation is not that serious.

“The visionary discussions concerning the future perspectives for ‘hard’ AI and neurotechnology-based human/machine boundaries have developed along the lines of the pattern already known from older visionary technology debates, for example concerning nanotechnology. In relatively small, closely interlinked circles of famous scientists, engineers, authors and industrialists, very far-reaching expectations for the future are being discussed in some cases. However, these expectations are (...) more or less the same as speculations already circulating decades ago. In the case of the current debate around ‘superintelligence’ (or ultra-high performance AI), it is mostly about issues from the 1960s which are being taken up - for example the idea of a self-aware and self-reinforcing AI (intelligence explosion or today mostly singularity hypothesis),” declared the mathematician Irving J. Good. [1]

The associated fears of AI are just as old as the visions, born out of uncertainty. Even if almost everyone has a smartphone, it doesn’t mean that everybody knows about the different forms of digitalisation. According to a survey by the German Initiative D21, its “Digital Index” has fallen slightly in terms of the overall population, from 52 to 51 points. Many people, in short, are not aware of the complexity of digitalisation. [2]

What’s more, research shows that only around half the population can keep up with the increasing challenges of digitalisation. Almost three-quarters of those polled knew the term “app” and could describe it, but knowledge of terms such as “cloud” and “cookies” was far lower. Only around half of those surveyed knew what they mean. The term “industry 4.0” (a German government initiative to promote the digitisation of manufacturing, business, and the overall economy) was familiar to only 15 percent of respondents, and just 13 percent of Germans could describe what the “sharing economy” is. The more specialised the terms, the less they are known. The majority of those surveyed didn’t recognize buzzwords such as “big data” and the “internet of things.”

In general, people have passable basic knowledge of trends like the “digital revolution”, “robotisation of labour” and “artificial intelligence,” according to the study.

Yet they shouldn’t be alarmed by dystopias in which machines gain the upper hand as depicted in the Terminator films. Fears of robot enslavement are not only unfounded, but thoughts about the distant future are in fact distracting us from the real issues that are important right now, for instance ethical considerations.

In an interview with Computerwoche (Computer Weekly) Google manager Diane Greene stated that for some time to come, artificial intelligence will not overtake human intelligence. 
She does believe, however, that many jobs could disappear because of AI. That’s why she’s in favour of reforming the education system to give everyone a digital education, arguing that only digital natives will find a job going forward. [3]

There’s no question that we need to make sure that people acquire extensive digital competencies as well as create the opportunities to adequately respond to major changes. “Action is urgently required. Employers and the public education system in particular have to react. Digital competence is a must to be able to react adequately to the risks and challenges powed by digitalisation,” concludes the survey conducted by D21 entitled “D21-DIGITAL-INDEX - Annual status report on the digital society”. [4]

Yet “many employees still have to acquire new knowledge and skills themselves. The federal government has to react to this and create incentives so that more structured education activities are offered,” concludes Sigmar Gabriel, then German Economics Minister, in the foreword to the study.

Our society, and politicians in particular, are facing the challenge of creating an innovative foundation and framework in which the AI ecosystem can grow in a meaningful and sustainable way. To get the digital transformation going, the German government has put in place a digital agenda. At the federal level, a Digital Agenda Committee is dealing with relevant issues, while parliament (Bundestag) has commissioned a study from the Büro für Technikfolgenabschätzung (Office for Technology Assessments, TAB). Only time will tell if that’s enough analysis and introspection.

The experts at TAB reach a similar conclusion: “With regard to AI and robotics, the perspectives of AI gaining power appear to be negligible at the moment when contrasted with the major technology challenges (in particular for the functional integration of perception, planning, and manipulation abilities), which are dependent on complex service robots. The undisputed successes of current AI research are restricted to ‘learning’ software applications. They do not exhibit any intelligent or autonomous behaviour in the human sense at all, which means that it is totally unclear whether a physically embodied ‘hard’ AI can be realized at all.” [5]

Not only the German government but also the opposition is dealing with the issue of AI. Dirk Schröter, who works on network policy with DIE LINKE (The Left) party in parliament, frames the issue like this: “The impact of digitalisation on people’s daily lives has always been of major importance for DIE LINKE. How should we deal with artificial intelligence taking over tasks that people currently perform? How should we deal with the fact there will be less and less work and thus fewer jobs? We’re discussing various possible solutions. They include an unconditional basic income or a minimum fee for freelancers working under precarious conditions. However, we are still in the middle of debating these issues and haven’t yet come to any conclusions. The legal issues of artificial intelligence are also complex. What rights does an AI have? What can it do and what not? Who is liable for accidents caused by the AI? (...) Those are questions that we have not yet answered, but that we will answer in the future.”

Konstantin von Notz, deputy leader for Die Grüne (the Green Party) in parliament, had this to say: “The current debate yet again highlights the well-known battle lines when discussing the digital revolution. As the constitutive contrast of man/machine appears to be totally breaking down, visions of the future are prevailing. They are extreme visions, no matter whether they are utopian or dystopian. But no matter how fast and radical this transition may occur, most of the network developments to date haven’t been as clear or as uniform as predicted. That doesn’t come as a surprise for a phenomenon as complex and dynamic as artificial intelligence.”

In summary, there are plenty of questions to which nobody has yet found conclusive, all-encompassing answers. We are right in the middle of the digital revolution, with all its different aspects, and artificial intelligence is part of this disruption. Hiding our heads in the sand because we are afraid of dystopia won’t help. Politicians are still looking for the framework conditions, while companies such as Deutsche Telekom are already dealing actively with this issue and shaping the future.

Here’s how Martin Bäumler, marketing lead for the AI project eLIZA at Deutsche Telekom, put it: “If we hire you, you have the opportunity to drive the issue of artificial intelligence as part of our team. Our AI Tinka has already been in use in Austria for more than two years, giving us a lot of content to show for. In addition, our development work is agile, with flat hierarchies and a very pleasant work culture. If there’s currently one company that’s tackling this issue successfully, it’s Deutsche Telekom.”


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