by Julius WiedemannJan 18, 2022
Technology can indeed be scary many times. From vaccines to privacy, from drones to social media, from self-driving cars to chip implants, the feeling that we are giving up control to another entity that is not human, and that artificial intelligence is basing itself on our erratic behaviour, can give us shivers, and it should. Another word for automation and machine learning is the data processing for the generation of efficiency, through processes that are carefully designed and learn from a feedback loop. The science of these fields has advanced a lot in the last years, but are still in their infancy. And the more we learn, the more we learn faster. We are advancing the use of new capabilities and are non-stop acquiring knowledge to correct mistakes on the fly, like never before. All I think technology can give us, is the idea that we have to be humble about our capacity to understand the consequences of what we are developing right now. And what we have developed so far. If we would stop today to digest everything we have created, disseminated across all sectors of humanity, it would take dozens of years to grasp it. And yet, we never think about stopping.
Humility resides in the doubt. The constant doubt that there is an unknown part of the equation that we need to solve problems in the future intrigues us. Funnily enough, the most controversial thing to say these days in a cocktail party seems to be “I don’t know.” Why is that so? I guess, that in the information age, we have created this anxiety because we have so much information available. But Socrates said something important about 2500 years ago: the more we know, the more we know that we know fewer things. Our evolution is defined by the amplification of the unknown territory, not the opposite. Been insecure about that is natural, but also childish. We have done so much in the last 70 years, talking about the digital revolution, that it has become completely counterintuitive to admit that we have a lot of limitations.
It sounds philosophical. But the world never needed so many philosophers. From quantum mechanics to biomass, from the discovery of new planets to the study of new viruses, we are still on a quest to the next leap forward. Technology implies that we are very humble about knowledge. Simply because it is impossible to dominate so many areas of interest. Even if you dedicate time to learning. So, learning together becomes the only alternative to generate common good. And on the top of that, we will need to trust machines and institutions to take decisions on our behalf. The next algorithm to know about your mental health, the next device to detect mortal diseases, the next gas that will cure babies, the next diet that will prevent diseases, will all need our trust. Not that these things are completely new. But the scale they can operate, will change dramatically in the next years.
We are still learning the ins and outs of a “digital judgement call”. According to the International Director, an industry publication, in an article named AI Errors vs. Human Errors, from June 2018, “Contrary to common belief, which posits that machines can be more objective and unbiased, algorithms can often be prejudiced. For example, an AI system designed to predict the likelihood of an offender committing yet another crime in the future had its predictions influenced largely by race.” To doubt about our capacity is now the greatest sign of intelligence and maturity we can display. Predictive systems will greatly empower us to take decisions faster and more accurate. But until we get there, we will have to be vigilant about every single aspect of the mechanics that we apply to every case.
Trust in the best minds is the way forward. Once I was asked if I didn’t believe in doctors, with all my scepticism. My answer was: “Of course I don’t. I trust that they have studied enough and have performed the best tests, and have been trained to read them, so that they can do an accurate diagnosis of what I might have. Belief plays no role here. It is a question of trust.” The current RNA technology for developing vaccines is a good case. For citizens who neither understand nor believe in science, to accept that a new technology can create a vaccine that is saving lives is something hard to grasp. RNA-led developments for vaccines and other medicaments have been in place for a few years, but it was now time to use it for good. Nuclear energy is about the same thing. It can render low carbon emissions at the same time that we can destroy millions of lives in a few minutes. Human beings tend to be pretty uncreative about consequentialism. Our capacity to design scenarios in our head and looking ahead from what we have in hand is very limited.
To conclude, humility here has two aspects. The first one is to doubt miracles and weird claims, to avoid fake news and misinformation. The second aspect is the excellence one. It entails getting involved and getting deeper into subjects so that we understand who are the people doing the right things and taking the best decisions. This availability to learn is what will create a greater environment for healthy discussions and where knowledge can take us forward. Bon voyage!
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.