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Research & Innovation

I support a more considered approach to progress

Ranga Yogeshwar is arguably Germany’s best-known science journalist. With a degree in physics, he has developed, produced and hosted numerous television shows. But he is more than just someone who explains science and technology.

09 Feb. 2018
Ranga Yogeshwar
Ranga Yogeshwar

A few months before his appearance at CEBIT 2018, we interviewed him on the way technological progress, with all its algorithms and artificial intelligence, is changing our society – and how we should react.

Mr. Yogeshwar, in an article in the FAZ newspaper you recently wrote that "people are using more and more devices which they understand less and less." What needs to change here?

An ever-growing number of people are surrounding themselves with devices like Amazon Echo or Google Home without knowing what’s going on behind them. We use social networks, but nobody knows the algorithms. And the outsider also has no idea of the criteria Google is using to prioritize content. There is an even deeper problem: Digital neural networks are already being used, but even the experts don’t understand how these complex systems actually function.

The call is therefore becoming louder for explainable AI, i.e. AI systems that can be understood in their behavior, regardless of their performance capabilities. For example, if you do not understand a type of artificial intelligence that can decide on granting you a bank loan today, you will never be able to explain why a credit decision comes out negative tomorrow.

What is wrong with trusting an algorithm to make credit decisions? Isn’t that more objective than letting humans do it?

Algorithms always have their moments of error, no matter how small. And you also have to be able to explain these. Imagine an algorithm that recognizes you as a criminal. In that case, I find it socially important and legitimate to understand where that recognition comes from.

So the technology communicator Ranga Yogeshwar is now warning us about technology?

No, I simply support a more considered approach to progress. In Germany in particular, we have a peculiar black and white approach to issues involving technological progress. We need to resolve this problem by taking a more measured approach to technology.

You’ve mentioned Alexa and Google Home. Why do we need to be more conscious in this area?

Our children are currently being conditioned to trust machines unconditionally. But these machines are not impartial servants – they want to sell us something. If children don’t learn to deeply consider things, how can they develop into empowered and enlightened citizens?

So, does that mean we ought to ban virtual assistants from our homes?

It's not about condemning technology. But blind faith needs to give way to comprehension. We are actors in a world of black boxes which are becoming more and more important in our lives, and as a society, we must ask ourselves how we can create greater transparency.

Does that mean we’re at a crossroads of digitization – caught between an enlightened approach to technology versus blind faith?

Our societies are already increasingly shaped by algorithms. The Facebook algorithm, for example, determines who comes into contact with whom. As a result, social groups are being formed on the Web solely on the basis of a single corporation’s decision-making processes.

While traditional media – in particular public broadcasting – have a duty to be balanced, algorithms apply completely different criteria. We’re reaching a point where algorithms will decide which social group’s voice will even be heard in the democratic discourse. This influences our thought processes and perception of reality. You can imagine the kind of consciousness this is going to create.

Recently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook planned to more strongly promote "meaningful conversations" on its pages. Will this help keep us from falling into the trap?

"Meaningful" may sound good, but you can interpret that in a number of ways. The question is, who is going to decide what kind of discussion society is allowed to engage in? Can a system that exists outside of society decide who talks to whom?

What then, would represent the right step towards a more enlightened, rational future?

We need to write an owner’s manual for progress. Currently we are like children who unwrap a gift and start using it immediately. The platforms operated by Google or Facebook are now so large they have become system-relevant. If a network can exert such a great amount of influence on our co-existence as a society, we need to insist that they disclose their algorithms.

What exactly do you mean?

The mass media have developed into the media of the masses, because anyone can publish something and reach millions of people with it. This is a great opportunity on the one hand, but whoever has hundreds of thousands of followers also has an influence on our society and therefore bears a different kind of responsibility. I believe this requires a different set of rules. Today we can already see how social networks are becoming a breeding ground for "alternative truths" in a fragmented party landscape, with a social discourse that is driven by algorithms.

So do we need some type of "digital driver’s license"?

Our digital culture offers us a new type of cooperation that was unknown to us in previous years. We need to learn the rules of this cooperation and actively pursue the opportunities it is opening up. It would be a sad state of affairs if digitization ultimately blew up in our faces just because we failed to do our homework.

In closing, let’s dare to take a positive look into the future. What would a world in which we have actually done our digital homework look like?

We might just experience a future in which we have digital servants who take care of the menial aspects of life, while we humans take care of the things that are important to our society. To put it bluntly: If machines can program machines, it makes little sense for humans to learn a programming language. Isn't it smarter then to give our children a feel for poetry and painting? The digital revolution is opening up new opportunities for us, but it is also changing our society.

We are thus faced with incredibly exciting times which have the potential to make our world more worthwhile. The present crucial phase harbors a number of questions: What is the significance of work? What are our shared objectives? What are the values of a new society and how will we succeed in making a stable transition from the world of today to the world of tomorrow? It is a rocky road we must travel, one that will be molded by a great deal of social discourse, not just business models.