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 second part of his interview, Helbing discusses how artificial intelligence could help to solve social, demographic and environmental challenges.
Egon Zehnder: In your vision of a digital democracy, the key drivers are innovation and creativity. But what about the role of artificial intelligence? Isn’t AI the antithesis of human creativity?
Dirk Helbing: It’s not the antithesis, no. I believe that we need to combine the superintelligence of AI with human creativity. There will be plenty of situations where it makes perfect sense to switch to autopilot and allow artificial intelligence to take over the controls. At the same time, there will be many decision points where we are confronted with a choice between important alternatives. In these instances, humans should hold on to their decision-making responsibility.
Egon Zehnder: So which criteria should be used to program the autopilot? What course should it follow?
Dirk Helbing: I would program the superintelligence to provide money, resources and data to people who use their creativity, their knowledge and their talents to do positive things, contribute to society, help others and cooperate. This kind of superintelligence would support behavior that benefits society and the environment and would encourage people to look out for each other and make a positive contribution. A world that puts solidarity and support at its heart would provide an alternative to models such as China’s Citizen Score, which is essentially descended from the Old Testament notion of an unforgiving and punitive God.
Egon Zehnder: But who has the authority to decide what is good and what deserves to be supported? What are these “positive things” and who gets to define them?
Dirk Helbing: You can’t use rigid rules to define these things. And you can’t have a central authority acting as a kind of guardian of morality. That would just stifle any semblance of innovation and creativity. Innovation breaks the rules; it refuses to be constrained by supposedly clear-cut definitions; it challenges the prevailing system. In other words, there are times when you have to break the rules in order to do the right thing. If you want an innovative, creative, evolving system – as opposed to a graveyard where nothing ever changes – then you can’t insist on rigid rules that decree some things to be good while consigning others to the poison cabinet where they are locked away with all the other bad stuff.
Egon Zehnder: But how do you stop the whole thing from descending into chaos? Who manages these systems?
Dirk Helbing: My vision of how the system would be managed is based on the premise that the Internet of Things will allow us to quantify the impacts of our actions on the environment and on other people extremely reliably. In other words, we will have a pretty clear picture of what damages the environment and what harms our fellow human beings. As a result, the maze of laws and regulations that we have today will become largely obsolete, they will simply cease to be relevant. The Internet of Things will quantify the damage or benefits resulting from our actions and will thus replace many of our current statutory regulations. Essentially, the only rule we will still need will be to minimize the harm caused by our actions. Minor infringements of this rule could carry a financial penalty. But anything that doesn’t harm other people or the environment would be permitted – for example, it would be OK to ignore a “Don’t Walk” signal if no traffic was coming. We shouldn’t need “Don’t Walk” signals in the future anyway, because vehicles will be able to detect and avoid pedestrians.
“I believe that we need to combine the superintelligence of AI with human creativity.”Dirk Helbing
Egon Zehnder: Your vision doesn’t seem to fully account for aspects that can’t be quantified by figures and data analytics.
Dirk Helbing: You’re quite right – there is a very real danger that categories which are impossible to quantify could fall through the cracks in the system. I am talking about things like consciousness, love, or human dignity, all of which are tremendously important in human society. That is why it is so crucial, particularly in the digital society, to ensure that all of these things have the space they need to flourish and to accept that not everything can be automated. Digitalization should serve people, not vice versa.
Egon Zehnder: : Is this a vision for the 22nd century?
Dirk Helbing: We definitely can’t afford to wait that long. We need to develop an alternative system for the future as soon as possible. And we need to have it ready before the current system collapses – which may be sooner than you think. It is already obvious that our political system is becoming increasingly unstable – so there is no time to lose.
The role of leadership and the part of young people in the metamorphosis from the old to the new world.
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.