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“The time has come to reinvent democracy and capitalism for the digital age.”

Leading IT researcher Dirk Helbing talks about his vision of the digital world of tomorrow.

  • March 2019

His name will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the major digitalization themes such as artificial intelligence, big data and cybersecurity. Dirk Helbing, Professor of Computational Social Science at ETH Zurich, is one of the world’s foremost researchers in a field that studies the interactions between computer science, mathematics, physics and the social sciences. Helbing is an outspoken critic of what he sees as the imminent threat of society being automatically controlled by algorithms and artificial intelligence, and believes that we need to start thinking about alternative scenarios. In this interview with Egon Zehnder, he sets out his alternative model for a digital democracy – a participatory society where big data and artificial intelligence are used to create a more resilient, innovative and pluralistic world. Can this ever really work? we ask. In the first part of his interview, Helbing discusses Europe’s prospects in the global battle for big data supremacy.



Egon Zehnder: Europe is obsessed with creating its own Silicon Valley. We are forever being told that we must close the digitalization gap on the United States as soon as possible. How do you rate Europe’s prospects in the global battle for big data supremacy?

Dirk Helbing: It has next to no chance if it opts to go down this route. People in Europe – and politicians in particular – simply don’t realize how far ahead of us Silicon Valley is. We’re talking about somewhere in the region of 15 years. In the digital world, that’s an eternity.

It is completely unrealistic to imagine that someone could hit a button in Berlin, invest a couple of billion euros, and in the space of ten years somehow transform us into the global leader in a field like artificial intelligence. Even if we could match the exponential rate of progress in the US – which I doubt – the gap would still get wider. That is the inevitable fate of anyone trying to play catch-up in an exponential growth scenario. It might feel like we were making progress, but in reality we would be falling further behind all the time.

Egon Zehnder: What about the Chinese approach?

Dirk Helbing: The Chinese model is the last thing we want. China has essentially taken Silicon Valley technology and started using it against its own people. The Citizen Score, for example, is a system where every citizen is awarded a certain number of points that determine both their access to various products, services, jobs and credit terms and the rights that they are granted. It goes without saying that we don’t want to replicate this digital system of state control in Europe.

The time has come to enter the second phase of the digital revolution.

Egon Zehnder: So what is your vision?

Dirk Helbing: To close the gap and become a global leader, Europe must reinvent democracy and capitalism for the digital age. What we need is a kind of grass-roots digital revolution that provides an alternative to the quasi-monopolistic Internet giants like Google and Facebook. A digital update of democracy along these lines would enable combinatorial innovation, triggering an explosion of creative and economic opportunities. It is an established scientific fact that data-driven, top-down strategies rarely result in genuine innovation. It is impossible to predict or control which innovations will appear, when and where they will occur or who will create them. Innovation can happen anytime, anywhere. It is often coincidences, apparent mistakes or misunderstandings that ultimately lead to new solutions.

The time has come to enter the second phase of the digital revolution. The first phase was all about big data, artificial intelligence and top-down optimization. It resulted in the establishment of centralized information, control and supervision mechanisms. The Silicon Valley Internet giants promised us a better, more sustainable world. But their technocratic visions of automated smart cities and smart nations have failed to create a heaven on earth. Although digitalization has undoubtedly made our lives more convenient in several respects, it has also led to people’s data being misused and to the emergence of platform capitalism, with its frequently sub-standard working conditions.

Egon Zehnder: So what will the second phase of the digital revolution look like?

Dirk Helbing: It will be a participatory, bottom-up digital democracy characterized by co-creation, coevolution, collective intelligence and self-organization. We must pool the knowledge and ideas of as many people as possible –in complex systems, the best solutions are a combination of several individual solutions. Digital technology can help to make all of this possible. Big data and artificial intelligence should be put at the service of a participatory society.

Egon Zehnder: That all sounds great, but how does it work in practice? Who controls the personal data in this digital democracy?

Dirk Helbing: Informational self-determination is absolutely key. Until we have control over our own data, companies, institutions and governments will keep trying to manipulate us. Each and every one of us should have the key code for our own “data safe”, with complete freedom to decide who can use our data, what purpose and how long they can use it for, and perhaps also how much they should pay for the privilege. We would still have access to all the personalized services and products that we know and love today – the only difference would be that the customer would have to explicitly consent to the use of their data.

Egon Zehnder: How could artificial intelligence help people to win back control over their personal data?

Dirk Helbing: One scenario is that we could all have AI-powered personal digital assistants that would learn over time which companies or institutions can be trusted with our data. In other words, companies would first have to win their customers’ trust. If, for example, a company was found guilty of the widespread misuse of personal data, it would not be long before most of its customers blocked access to their data, leaving it unable to do business. Rather than vying with each other to misuse our data like they do today, companies would be competing for consumers’ trust. This would create a kind of digital community of trust.

Egon Zehnder: Again, it sounds great, but isn’t it a rather utopian vision?

Dirk Helbing: These ideas may seem somewhat utopian from today’s perspective. But in Europe’s case, the alternative is either to be completely overwhelmed in the battle for digital supremacy, or at best to end up as a bit part player. Before it comes to that, we need to pull ourselves together, dive in at the deep end and swim across to the other side, where the new digital world awaits.

How can artificial intelligence help to solve social, demographic and environmental challenges?

Dirk Helbing was born in 1965. Since 2007, he has been Professor of Computational Social Science at ETH Zurich’s Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences. Helbing studies the interactions between the social sciences, mathematics and physics. Together with eight other researchers, including economist Bruno S. Frey and big data expert Roberto V. Zicari, in 2015 he co-authored the acclaimed “Digital Manifesto”, which sounds a stark warning about the imminent automation of society using algorithms and artificial intelligence.

Topics Related to this Article


Leading IT researcher Dirk Helbing talks about his vision of the digital world of tomorrow:

Episode 1 - “The time has come to reinvent democracy and capitalism for the digital age.”

Episode 2 - “We need to combine human creativity with artificial intelligence.”

Episode 3 - “We need more freedom, not more power.”

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