Wednesday, 22 February 2017

iGod: Chapter 1 of Willemijn Dicke's science fiction novel on the digital age

The hologram of the Chinese prime minister was waiting in the corner of his apartment to be activated by Lex. Apparently, the SmartHouseSystem selected this news item with priority. The manual of the SmartHouseSystem claimed that it ranked the news by algorithms only, but Lex could not remember that he had selected Chinese government statements before. Xi Ben Zhu started with the usual formalities and Lex played it fast forward.

‘…that is why we called for the Nüwa project to harvest extraterrestrial resources, fifteen years ago. We are proud to announce that, for the first time ever in our history, we have been able to mine the much needed rare earth minerals on an asteroid and bring them to the Earth. In this way, we can resume the production of smart devices and continue it for another 3.5 years.

For us, this is the start, and not the end of our continuing endeavour to conquer space. We all know that Earth will soon run out of resources. In other words: so far, the pie has been getting too small for all of us. We, the Chinese People, do not want to serve out even smaller portions. Instead, we are dedicated to enlarge the pie.’

‘Yeah’, Lex said out loud to the hologram while he swiped it away. For Splinter, the voice of his boss was a sign to come up Lex, jump up to him and lick his hands. The dog wagged his tail like this was a once in a lifetime reunion between the dog and his boss. He repeated this enthusiasm every day, time and again when Lex came home, when he woke up, when he threw a stick or stroke his back. Lex had never planned to have a dog. He inherited it from his parents. At first, Lex was not happy at all with this responsibility for another living creature. Now, however, the two had developed a new routine, just like a married couple. ‘Yes I have understood you, we will go out.’

Lex’ attention was drawn to a small group of people on the pavement across his street. He run up to the group and he saw a teenager, lying on the ground wailing out of pain. His left leg was twisted in an unnatural angle and he was bleeding.

‘Did someone call an ambulance?’ Lex asked.
‘A hoverboard hit him at ridiculous speed. Of course, that guy did not bother to stop to call an ambulance’, a lady in the crowd answered Lex.
‘So, has someone else read his wrist RFID and called an ambulance? The boy is in agony!’, Lex repeated his question impatiently.
‘We checked his wrist. He does not possess an activated Citizen Service Number’, the same lady answered.
They all knew that, without this number, which was directly coupled to one’s credit card, ambulances would not show up. If this guy did not have an activated number, he and his family could probably not afford the operation either. If Lex would supply the Ambulance Service with his own Citizen Service Number, this would imply that Lex would pay both for the ride and for the operation, including all medical services and the after care. Lex could simply not afford this, nor could the other bystanders probably.
‘So what do we do?’ Lex could not stand the howling of the kid.
‘We have contacted his father. He should be here any minute.’
A man in his late forties in non-official working clothes arrived by electric rickshaw. His eyes panicked when he saw his boy in a puddle of blood, screaming with pain. Lex and a few others helped the father to get the boy into the rickshaw – it was impossible to move the boy without hurting him.
‘Here, for the hospital bill’, Lex said to the father. He held up his personal device so that it was clear he wanted to do a credit transaction to the father’s account.
‘I appreciate your gesture, but I have been denied access to peer-to-peer transactions.’
‘Can I support you in any other way?’
‘I am afraid not. We will manage.’ When the father closed the door of the rickshaw, he accidentally touched the harmed leg of the boy, who screamed stridently.
‘Fuck!’ the lady cursed when the boy and father drove off and the entire group was nodding in agreement. Some years ago, this social class system did not exist. How unfair and frustrating things had become! Without even saying goodbye, everyone departed.
Lex decided to send a message to his client that he would skip their meeting scheduled for today and he would instead visit him later this week. He first needed to get rid of the depression, which had taken hold of him after he saw the wounded boy. In fact, it was not the teenager who made him low-spirited, but the confrontation with his own impotency to change something to the better in this increasingly frustrating world. His attempts or intention could not make an impact. It resulted all in the same: in nothing. In his attempt to get rid of his darkened mood, he walked Splinter longer than usual. When he entered the apartment building, he was still depressed by the accident.

He opened the door to his apartment and he said ‘store the bed’, which was then neatly folded and stored. ‘Work out device, level 4, total body work out’. A box unfolded into a working out device. Lex was pleased with the design. He had once created it himself by making solely use of parts of old machines and roboticized furniture – no single part was newly bought. He was also proud that he had designed a machine that worked on any muscle group a man needs to work on – his PhD in biology was not completely obsolete after all!

On the wall his biometrics were projected: the pattern of his sleep last night; the heartbeat, blood pressure, calorie intake, exercise time and many other details. The health insurance company could be happy, he was in the green zones for almost all categories. No extra premiums for him this month! He grabbed the poles of his working out machine and the treadmill started. The device changed shape as it worked out different muscles of his body.

‘Main news; scenes with subtitles,’ was Lex’ next command. On a wall on his left, a courtroom was projected. It was announced that a robot had now replaced the last human judge. A voice-over went over the many human errors that had occurred over the last decades. Lex interrupted: ‘No voice-over. Subtitles’. He was puzzled why his SmartHouseSystem would not have caught his instruction the first time.

The news continued. Portraits of people that had been the victim of judicial aberrance were shown. Luckily enough, with this final replacement in the European Court, the citizens of Europe were now safe from these kinds of aberrant convictions. The next item was yet another terrorist attack. A major power plant in the Netherlands had been targeted. The news could not reveal yet which terrorist group was behind this attack.

There were quite a few of them: some were a collection of people against the supremacy of robots; others were religiously inspired, there were nationalistic factions that opposed the European Federation and there were groups that engaged against mass migration.
A complicating factor to find out who was the assassin this time was that these terrorist movements formed coalitions with one or more other associations in some of the instances. Given the brutality of the attack, Lex’ guess was that this particular action was a deed of the anti-migration groups.

The next item on the news was the opening of a massive detention centre in the South of France. The video showed how efficient, clean and huge this facility was. Terrorists from entire Europe could be transported to this facility, which was basically a new kind of high security prison that tried to come across like a futuristic quarter of town, while it was in fact a ghetto. Detention centers had now become one of the most important economic sectors in France. He skipped the rest of the item and moved on to the last news of today. The opening of a new life-long university was reported. Lex had programmed MyNews in such a way that he would always end with a lighter news item – among all the riots and attacks, it was important to see the good news too. Students of all ages and countries worked on their education programmes from home, almost for free. Once their coursework was handed in, the university’s computer system would notice immediately what the individual level of a certain student in a specific area was and recorded the individual skills and progress history. The system would come up with new exercises until the student was able to perform the task flawlessly and only then move to the next level. Each student followed a completely individual track. It made Lex think to take up some advanced neuropsychology classes – it was fun last time when he enrolled in the basic course.

In his kitchenette, Lex ordered a smoothie with spinach, celery and ginger. He waited for a few minutes and then the 200 ml cup was pushed gently on the tray. He did not like the bitter taste, nor the muddy texture but he had investigated the composition of his diet meticulously. He wanted to stay both physically and mentally fit, far beyond his nineties and the SmartHouseSystem confirmed that this was indeed the best balanced diet for him. Good for his skin appearance as well, the SmartHouseSystem had added, but that did not interest Lex a bit. His main reason to eat and live healthy was that he did not want to die the way his parents did: decrepit bodies enveloping steeply deteriorating minds in their late seventies.

While he finished his daily dose of pure health he commanded: ‘Show me the high scores of MultiLayer’. In green letters, the table with the scores was projected on a wall to his right. Lex was more than content, seeing that he was still in the top 10 of his favourite game. He swallowed the healthy liquid in one go, his jaws clenched and his eyes squinted at the last gulp. Lex checked who was online and he was happy to see that Hector08 was in the virtual waiting room. He needed to team up with another player who had the resources he did not possess himself in order to reach the next level. He and Hector08 had been partners in this game on different adventures. They were a good team: Lex being creative and imaginative, and Hector08 being very skilful in killing all the spies and agents that crossed their path. Although he had never met him face to face, Lex felt he really knew Hector08. The game made it very transparent how people responded to pressure, how intelligent they were and, also very important, whether they were able to laugh about the world and themselves.

In the chat Hector08 asked whether Lex could join him on a level 9 quest. ‘Count me in’, Lex answered. They compared each other’s resources needed in the game to reach the next level and they discussed their strategy. Just when Hector08 set up his gear, they spotted a gang that was approaching them very fast. Full attention had to be paid to the development of the adventures in the game. Within 89 minutes they reached level 9.

‘Wow, thanks man! Good game, but more challenging than I thought. I liked that path finding stuff,’ Hector08 chatted.
‘Path finding?? Are u kidding me? You liked the puzzle more than the shooting?’ Lex asked surprised.
‘Hmm. For a scout, you seemed rather eager at the shooting episodes. Are you a grown up or still a kid?’
‘I am a fallen angel.’
‘Aren’t we all? See you at level 10 or beyond.’
During the game he was paged several times, but at that time Lex had more important things to do. To win a war for example. Now he looked and he was annoyed when he noticed that he had missed 5 PageCalls. Only the elderly and business contacts used PageCalls. His friends would use less intrusive communication methods. He checked who had tried to get to speak to him so desperately. It was Mr. VanBuren again.

One month after his contract at the university was unexpectedly terminated, he mentioned in his social circles that he was available for AI assistance. When he thought of this possibility to earn some money in addition to his BaseSalary, he had small companies in mind to help them harvest Big Data and to analyse the data for their business purposes. Unfortunately, it turned out differently. He had a modest clientele by now, mostly people in their eighties and older, who did not have relatives around to help them with the most basic things. When Mr. VanBuren tried to instruct the SmartHouseSystem, there was always something wrong: the icons had vanished or were replaced; the VoiceControl did not work or the SmartHouseSystem did not respond altogether. In many cases, he had missed a software update.

Lex stopped an E-rick and voiced his destination. For the aim of the ride he stated ‘work’. After a 15 minutes ride, the rickshaw stopped in front of a large, grey building. Already before Lex could swipe his wrist implant across the entrance sensor, Mr. VanBuren opened the door. ‘My dearest Alexander.’ Only he and Lex’ late mother called him by his full name. ‘Please have a look at my CommemorationBarbara. She keeps on telling the same stories, time and again.’

VanBuren had been a widower for over 10 years and the program to chat with his late wife was a bit amateurish. Lex did what he could and fixed some of the scripts in the chat bot, but the repertoire of CommerationBarbara was simply limited.
‘I restored some of the connections but I am afraid you cannot have more than 105 different chat options.’
‘Thank you. Hearing her voice, still perks me up. She was very special, Alexander. A smart and stylish lady. Sometimes she was a little bit glum, fair to say. But who was always in high spirits and happy and all that?’ From the intonation, Lex concluded that this particular word set belonged to VanBuren well-rehearsed repertoire. VanBuren walked to the other corner of his room. ‘Please sit down.’
It made no sense to hurry. Mr. VanBuren was old, but not stupid. Lex asked for 60 eCoins per hour, and 60 was the starting tariff. Usually he had fixed Mr. Van Buren’s problem within ten minutes. Since VanBuren had to pay the 60 eCoins anyway, he would come up with all kinds of little jobs; fixing roboticized furniture, fine-tune and personalize the SmartHouseSystem. Sure, it would have been better to work for a government agency or for an agency that was credited by the government – then he was allowed to ask for 90 eCoins per hour. The government did not encourage transactions between two individuals.

Today, VanBuren invited Lex to have a chat about the world news. He wanted to know what Lex thought of the building of yet another massive detention camp in the South of France. When Lex started his answer, VanBuren interrupted bluntly: ‘You young folks know nothing.’ After a 20 minutes lecture on world affairs, going back and forth between decades and continents, with the second world war as focal point, Lex left the house of the old man. Mr. VanBuren said goodbye and was still standing in the door opening, waving, when Lex turned to the right. Lex decided to walk home. The weather was nice; Mr. VanBuren’s long and lonely day was a little bit relieved by his visit. He had reached level 10 in Multilayer and 60 fresh eCoins on his account. Life was not so bad after all! He already knew how he would spend his money…

At home, Lex ordered a hologram girl, tailored to his liking. She had the right touch, the perfect looks; sporty meets intelligence. OK, perhaps he was not very original but he liked redheads. Nothing to be ashamed of, right? They had a good time. Before taking off his smart glasses and his gloves, he closed the session with a polite phrase to the ho-girl – always an awkward moment – and then he closed the program.

The sex had brought him in a mood that was the perfect mixture of relaxation and lust for life. He wanted to play a game. He checked the high scores again – he was now number 12 – and he played MyNews. This was quite a recent game and not yet fully developed. Lex had been invited as one of the early adopters of the game. MyNews game enabled players to re-enact the situations in the news that happened only hours before. Lex thought MyNews had huge potential, but some bugs had still to be fixed and he was reporting them.

He was currently working on the experience of time in MyNews. Time leap was now an extremely irritating factor. You could not speed up the chain of events. The game mimicked the time line of the real events – often boringly slow. Lex had done several suggestions to the editors of the game to improve the time experience. Although Lex was not completely satisfied yet, his proposed solution was certainly an improvement compared to the former versions. It pleased Lex that the editors had installed his solution – in that way he had earned MyNews points and on top some further 60 credits.

The reason Lex liked MyNews was that, as a gamer, one could choose which role of which scene in the news he wanted to play: terrorist, secret agent, government, industry, or civilian. Thanks to Mr. VanBuren, he chose the opening of the facility in the South of France. In the re-enactment of the news, Lex chose the role of the head of EU Secret Service. He was placed in a virtual reality that copied the news facts as much as possible. During the game, the outcome could end up different from real life, depending on the decisions and actions by Lex and the other players.

It was by the indecent prodding of Splinter between Lex’ elbow and torso that Lex was reminded that several hours had passed. Lex walked to the nearest spot where Splinter was allowed to run free. That is not a given in an over-regulated country like The Netherlands. Being a whippet, Splinter needed to race daily, otherwise he could get real nasty in the apartment, as Lex had learned over the years.

Today, Splinter ran to an overweight boxer. It was rather rare to encounter another dog – national policy discouraged having pets. Information campaigns portrayed dog owners as environmentally irresponsible, using scarce resources to feed useless animals instead of humans. The water needed for Splinter was deducted from Lex’ water allowance and Lex encouraged his dog to drink from ditches and ponds. When Lex decided to keep the dog from his parents, it cost him at least 10 points of his SocialCitizenScore.

Splinter tried to challenge the other dog to play and run, but the fat dog did not even move its lid. The owner of this boxer nodded to Lex. ‘This is a metaphor for human relations, don’t you think? Men want to play and it is always the woman who decides whether the game is on. Most of the time it is not, of course.’ When Lex approached the dog owner a little bit closer, he recognized Adriaan Seldon by his half long grey hair.
‘You are from Amsterdam Tech, aren’t you?’, Lex asked.
‘Yes, you too?’ the older man replied.
‘I used to be.’
They shook hands and they exchanged basic coordinates. When Seldon expressed his interest in Lex’ story, Lex started telling. He completed both his masters (summa cum laude, by the way) and his PhD in Biology at Amsterdam Tech. Seldon informed after the name of Lex’ supervisor. Amsterdam Tech is like a small village and most academic staff knew each other, certainly the professors. Lex continued. ‘I have found rather sophisticated forms of communication between trees, especially the Ginkgo – one of the oldest trees on earth. They were already part of the landscape when dinosaurs were around. Isn’t that amazing?’ Seldon nodded affirmatively. ‘My hunch after completing my PhD was that, since we share 50% of our DNA with bananas, we probably also share the potential for these communication methods.’ Lex spoke enthusiastically. Seldon said that, for a humble engineer like himself, this all made sense. How did it happen that Lex did no longer work for Amsterdam Tech? To Lex’ surprise, his answer had more emotional load than he anticipated. He told that basically it was his own fault since he did not care about details of his labour contract. He signed everything as long as he could continue his research, which was so fascinating!
‘You know, my work at the university never felt like a job, it has always been and still is my calling’, Lex heard himself saying. ‘As long as I could do what I wanted to do most in life – namely research – and as long as I had enough money to fill the fridge.’
For Seldon, this was true for many people pursuing an academic career. So why did Lex not continue his research at Amsterdam Tech?
For the first time since his dismissal, he could control his anger over the course of events. ‘I don’t want to brag, but I was good, pretty good actually. I received an Iacta grant, I published in Flora, and later I received an Novice Emergo.’
‘Well-done, that is outstanding for a Postdoc.’
‘My supervisor, who is the department head, as you know, really valued me and my research. I am sure of that. Time and again he found some money to offer me a contract for another period of a few months and he promised that I would soon be appointed as assistant professor. But in the end, the department did not have the money to offer me a permanent position – one of their building sites required more money than expected. And so, all of a sudden, in the middle of a series of experiments, I did no longer have a job. You know as well as I that I had become too old to start as a tenure track assistant professorship at another university.’
‘No chance’, Seldon added, a little bit too soon and too honest to Lex’ liking.
‘So here I am, walking the dog, playing computer games and fixing computer problems of computer illiterates.’
Seldon sighed.
‘Do I bore you?’, Lex asked.
‘Not for a single moment. I am disappointed of the institutional capacity to retain guys like you for Academia. It takes one to know one, and I know you are a researcher. I saw your eyes lighten up when you mentioned the Talking Ginkgo.’
At that moment, the whippet ran to a bypasser, but suddenly its movement froze and the dog crouched. Lex called Splinter’s name punitively. Seldon watched the situation with great interest.
‘What happened?’
‘My dog was so badly trained by my parents that I had to invent something. Now he wears a collar that gives it small electric shocks if it behaves unfavourably. Here is the remote control.’ Lex showed an app on his personal device.
‘If only we could apply that to my students’, Seldon remarked jokingly.
‘By the way, what is the name of your dog?’ Seldon asked.
‚Splinter. And hers?‘
‚Hagar.‘We will meet here again, Lex, no doubt. When dogs like each other’s company, their bosses will follow them. Besides there are not many places were dogs are allowed.’ Seldon laughed again and then he switched to a more serious tone. ‘I have to rush now, but let’s keep in touch.’
When they said goodbye, in Seldon’s wrinkled earlobe a shadow of a tiny little hole became visible as a faded sign of rebellion. Lex was touched, without precisely knowing why.

Monday, 20 February 2017

iGod: A science fiction novel by Willemijn Dicke - inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing


by Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich/TU Delft)

With the digital revolution, we are experiencing a perfect storm. Social networks, cloud computing, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, the Internet of Things, Quantum Computing, Blockchain Technology, 3D printing, Virtual Reality and many new technologies are now reshaping our world. Uber is challenging the taxi business, AirBnB hotels. Tesla’s electrical cars and Google’s self-driving cars are changing transportation. BitCoin questions the monetary system. And this is just the beginning. Wherever possible, digital technologies will be used to reinvent products, services, and business models. They will reshape entire economic sectors, jobs, and public institutions. Our lives are changing, but the changes behind the scenes and those ahead of us are even more dramatic. Slowly but surely do we realize that we are experiencing the beginning of a new historical era, the digital age.

How will this digital future look like? We don’t know exactly. Many variants of a data-driven society are possible: from Fascism 2.0 (a totalitarian Big Brother or Brave New World society) over Communism 2.0 (the Big Mother society – a “benevolent” dictatorship that imposes the seemingly best solution on us) to Feudalism 2.0 (the Big Other society run by big business – also known as surveillance capitalism). Of course, a Democracy 2.0 would be possible as well, but it has not been built yet. If we let others decide, we will surely get a variant that benefits others. In order to make sure our future society will be favorable for us, we need to shape it ourselves. It is high time to voice our opinion, because the versions of digital societies that are currently on their way, are pretty concerning. The surveillance state unveiled by Edward Snowden is just the beginning of what is to come…

The reason for these developments is the current situation of the world. Things are not looking good. When the United Nations announced its Agenda 2030 two years ago, I though by myself – it’s quite ambitious to reach all these goals within just 15 years. Why the hurry? The Limit to Growth study, commissioned by the Club of Rome in the beginning of the 1970ies, gives an answer. A world with exponential economic growth and population increase will ultimately end in economic and population collapse – so the predictions of their simulation model, no matter how they chose the model parameters. Are we doomed? Are we running out of resources? Do we need an ecological totalitarianism to survive?

“iGod” is a science fiction story of my friend Willemijn Dicke, which looks into these scenarios. We have come to the conclusion that neither a scientific study nor an investigative report would allow one to talk about certain things that, we believe, need to be thought and talked about. So, a science fiction story appeared to be the right approach. It seems the perfect way to think “what if scenarios” through. It is not the first time that this avenue has been taken. George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” come to mind, or Dave Eggers “The Circle”. The film ‘The Matrix’ and the Netflix series ‘Black Mirror are good examples too. Still it seems that many people were too busy, too entertained, too naïve, or too overloaded with information to realize that this is more than fantasy and entertainment. By now, much of this is fact and just in front of our door! It is time to pay attention, because it is better not to let it in! Do not say, you did not know it, or you could not change it – you can! And you actually owe it to your kids and others to make sure our society will get on a better path.

At present, things do not look good. Some months ago, in view of the situation in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, Pope Francis asked: “What is up with you, humanistic Europe, you defender of human rights, democracy, and freedom?” But he is not the only leader who is worried. When Martin Schulz was president of the European Parliament, he demanded that we – The People – would have to fight against technological totalitarianism. And Barack Obama hinted in his last Correspondents Dinner speech:

“… this is also a time around the world when some of the fundamental ideals of liberal democracies are under attack, and when notions of objectivity, and of a free press, and of facts, and of evidence are trying to be undermined. Or, in some cases, ignored entirely.
And in such a climate, it’s not enough just to give people a megaphone. And that’s why your power and your responsibility to dig and to question and to counter distortions and untruths is more important than ever.” 

So, we started digging, and even though not everything we found was true, there was a lot of material that was worth a story. In the past year or so, Willemijn and I have talked a lot about our world and its possible futures. In front of you is the story that resulted. Obviously, the purpose of this science fiction is to make you think about our world and to find out by yourself what is true or false, possible or not. In the non-fact society we are now living in, this is a good exercise. And do not take it easy! There is a lot more truth in this science fiction than you are probably willing to consider.

“iGod” outlines how life could be in a couple of years from now, certainly in our lifetime. At some places, this story about our future society seems far-fetched. For example, in “iGod”, all citizens have a Social Citizen Score. This score is established based on their buying habits, their communication in social media and social contacts they maintain. It is obtained by mass-surveillance and has a major impact on everyone's life. It determines whether you are entitled to get a loan, what jobs you are offered, and even how long you will receive medical care.

Although this seems to be far from reality, we see a lot of developments in today's society that could potentially lead to such a scenario. Of course, many revolutionary, new, digital technologies facilitate great new opportunities for our societies. However, there are also high risks, opportunities for dual use, and side effects, which we need to be aware of and protect our society from.

Analysis, assessment and regulation of digital technologies lag far behind the exponential acceleration of IT innovations. This resembles driving too fast on the highway on a foggy day. Serious accidents could happen, even on a global scale. Therefore, "iGod" serves to sharpen public awareness and to initiate a much needed public debate, in order to promote digital literacy and enlightenment.

Here are some digital technologies, which are important today:

By obtaining Big Data with powerful computer algorithms one can identify patterns, correlations, and optimization potentials in the data. However, the same techniques allow for mass surveillance and totalitarian societies.

Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Computing and Robotics facilitate self-learning and autonomous systems that can perform repetitive, rules-based tasks: they can do dangerous, dull and dirty work. These technologies lead to a new wave of automation, they may claim a lot of current jobs, detect our personality traits, and manipulate people (with a technique called "Big Nudging").

The Citizen Score rates all citizens based on their behavior and on the basis of their social contacts (as determined by mass surveillance). The Citizen Score defines the "value" of a citizen to society from the perspective of those who govern, and determine the goods and services someone will get. The British version of this system is called 'Karma Police'.

Virtual Reality and holographic technology will be able to produce visual experiences that are projected, but appear real. This goes so far that we would feel a sixth finger, for example. Additionally, real-time voice and video editing make it possible to change videos as they are played – offering a perfect tool for fake news and a fact-free society.

Gene editing using methods such as crisper/CAS9 is easier and more accurate than ever, but it may be difficult to control. One of the goals is to create eternal life. But what does this mean for a world, which many people call “over-populated” already? The increasing ease and plausible deniability of use has also implications for the debate on genetically modified food. Most likely, we will even see attempts to upgrade people and to create new forms of life with supernatural abilities.

Drones are new tools for transport by air, but they can also be weaponized and used for mass surveillance in a George Orwell “1984” kind of world.

3D Printing facilitates local production, even at home.

Blockchain Technology supports a decentralized organization and operation of information systems as well as payments and smart contracts between peers. In the future, this technology may increasingly replace laws.

Last but not least, the dark web allows you to do all sorts of things…

In conclusion, given the exponential acceleration of IT innovations, technology assessment and legal regulation lags behind. It’s somehow like driving too fast on a foggy day. Accidents may happen, and may even reach a global scale. The Internet and power grid turn out to be increasingly prone to cyber threats. Everything, from the military to the NSA, from the Pentagon to the White House, from nuclear power plants to hospitals has been hacked in the past. Personal data that reveal our personality and our weaknesses have been collected about everyone for the sake of marketing and manipulation. This has made governments, businesses and individuals highly vulnerable. And in times, where more money flows into the military-industrial complex than in the civilian sector, dual use may become the primary use. Inventions that were meant for the better of humanity may be turned into weapons – weapons which may be even applied to civil societies in peaceful times. A lot of these problems may only be noticed by societies when catastrophic outcomes have happened. That’s why we need to think and talk about such possibilities.

But now it is really time to dive into the story. I hope it will entertain you well, and make you wonder!

(The chapters of the Science Fiction „iGod“ will be posted every few days, so please return to our blog soon.)


by Willemijn Dicke

‘Unless you have a brilliant hidden plan, I think you really screwed it up this time!'

It was unusual for Lex to blame iGod without any signs of holding back.

‘I am afraid I have not taken into account all possible linkages and feedbacks when I tried to optimize the financial system’; she answered in her dark brown raspy voice that maintained its usual calm and confidence. Unlike most other encounters, there was no trace of irony in her voice. ‘But it can be fixed. In fact, I have already started rescue operations – as you may have noticed. Soon, it is all under control again.’

iGod immediately projected a hologram. All of a sudden Lex’ small apartment was filled with the mass demonstration that had taken place earlier that day in Washington DC. Outraged people did no longer trust the financial system with the virtual money streams. They were holding banners demanding to get their old BitCoins back, shouting and throwing fireballs towards him. Lex’ instinctively moved aside, but the fireballs dissolved just before their images would reach him. The hologram of the furious crowd faded and next, iGod projected a video of the president of the United States delivering a speech before the United Nations on Lex’ wall on the left.

President Renate Wilson started by repeating the question she ‘had heard this morning in the streets’. Yeah, right, Lex thought, as if she spent her time amongst ordinary citizens. ‘How on earth', she said, 'could it be possible that money that we have worked so hard for simply evaporated?’ Well, she reassured us: ‘it is not possible, and it has never been possible.’ Indeed, for a moment it seemed that money disappeared. But now, new calculations, done by the very best and very brightest economists and scientists of the world from the most prestigious institutions, have shown that earlier numbers were incorrect. New analysis of the data proved that the national budget was solid as ever. Wilson emphasized:

‘No money has disappeared. We know you put your trust in our system, and you have good reasons to do so. The United States has the most advanced technologies in place to secure your money, your savings, for which you have worked so hard.

Let me repeat: your money is safe, and has always been safe with us. We have had a technical misinterpreting. Unfortunately, the cause of the misunderstanding was very detailed and technical, but believe me, it was a calculation error.

The moment this flaw was discovered, our experts have fixed the computer program. No payments or salaries had ever been in danger. We can all sleep well.’

‘Wow, she is totally convincing’, Lex said.

‘That is because she believes in what she says’, iGod answered.

After a few minutes, iGod muted the speech of the president, the video still running. On Lex’ right, the president of the European Central Bank appeared, addressing the members of the European Parliament. Using his Ultravision lenses, Lex zoomed into on a document with an International Monetary Fund logo, which one of the members of parliament was reading on his tablet. Almost simultaneously this report appeared on Lex’ screen: ‘The Monetary Black Hole Unveiled.’ While Lex was scrolling through the pages of the report, he asked iGod what this was all really about. ‘Has the Big Data Infrastructure failed?’

Lex knew that she had become quite creative in swopping funds and budgets around for the greater good. iGod justified this by the need to counterbalance the weaknesses of democracies. Programs that lack any sense of heroism, esthetics or national pride, let’s say the maintenance of the sewage system, tended to be ignored. People wanted their leaders to build cathedrals and to colonize other planets. Politicians need something sexy and tangible – that is one of the flaws that bothered intellectuals since the introduction of democracy by the Greeks. iGod would not be a SuperSystem if she could not repair this weakness.

She chose several goals for her alternative money streams. Long-term investments in infrastructures was one of them. To be more precise, a very specific infrastructure: the means to transfer, deliver, exchange, sell and resell Big Data to create a more stable society. Instead of bothering to get the members of parliament to vote for maintenance of sewerage systems or Big Data infrastructures, she designed a creative way of tapping real money from the economy through sophisticated financial derivatives – using it for purposes that were important, but not acknowledged as such by the voters. Via all sorts of sub-investment and transactions she moved a basically untraceable money flow from the economy, totally hidden among the noise of the financial markets, to the budgets of her liking. Even if they noticed the unexpected abundance of resources, the key players in the benefiting organizations did not ask difficult questions. They just built, developed and innovated even grander investment schemes. In their recent conversations, she called it euphemistically ‘the alternative budgetary system’.

Lex knew that this was going on, but he could not have imagined the sheer size of this operation. According to the alarming reports that formed the prelude of the recent financial panic, up to 13% of the gross national product of some of the main economies was lost. ‘Why did you take so much money out? If you would have operated with modest sums, no one would have noticed it and you would still have had a wonderful infrastructure’, Lex complained to iGod.

‘I didn’t. Will you never ever underestimate me again? Of course I did not design the alternative budgetary system like this. The truth is: it went out of control. The subsystems were interlinked in many complex ways. Yes, I switched a few exchanges and added new shunts. That should have done the trick. But of course, you humans…you behave irrational beyond any calculation. It started with some laymen, taking the mild changes in the algorithms too seriously. The system indicated it in light blue, not yet yellow, orange or red. But these people thought very romantically that they could make better decisions than the system. So they pushed the alarm button, metaphorically speaking. This triggered the irrational behavior of key players in the economy and then: shit hit the fan.’
Lex laughed. ‘You are irresistible when you use expressions like these, do you know?’

This was not the first time. In all other instances, the SuperSystem had been able to cover up before social unrest came to an outbreak, but this time, Lex was not completely convinced by iGod’s reassurances. Someday, somewhere, curious people, perhaps scientists, just like him, would suspect that there was a world outside the representation of the world they had access to.
‘You have to be more careful, my lovely little goddess.’

‘I have made sure that the right people would do the right transactions again’, she answered. To prove that everything was under control again, iGod showed the National Mall in Washington DC. Everything was quiet as normal, with hardly anyone in the streets.

Lex went to the kitchen. ‘Coke, 10 degrees Celsius, medium sparkling’, he ordered. His fridge opened and presented a mineral water on the tray.

‘At your service’, the raspy voice said. This was definitely not the sound of his SmartHouseProgram. Lex turned his head and spoke in the direction of his screen. ‘What happened to my Coke? I told you dozens of time not to interfere with my SmartHouseProgram!’

‘This is better for you’, iGod said with a withheld smile that came through anyway.

A data report appeared on his screen. The files showed in various graphs how his sugar levels developed over the past few months, in combination with other kinds of biometrics. In a separate report, the chemicals were associated with a risk for certain diseases.

‘You combined the toothbrush data and the data of my lenses with the DNA profiling test I bought two years ago, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, together with the digital health files of you and your relatives combined with statistics of the data from your toilet sensors’ she added – her answer came just a little bit too quick to sound as nonchalant as she would have liked.

Lex leaned back in his office chair. ‘Your omnipresence is really annoying Miss iGod! How often do I need to tell you that we are beyond this stage?’

‘Sorry, bad habit’, she replied. On his screen, an image of a pulsating green heart was shown, to disappear in the blink of an eye.

‘Have to go now,’ iGod said with a bass voice that was even sultrier than usual.

‘You cannot use this voice and leave me on my own!’ Lex cried out. ‘Next time I will fall in love with my boss or a fitness instructor or a puppy trainer.’

‘In your dreams. I will never let you go. See you tomorrow, my dear.’

She concluded the conversation somewhat oldfashioned with three x’s, and then the screen went blank, leaving Lex feel frustrated and abandoned. She was in charge, as always.

Friday, 10 February 2017

At the Edge (Chapter 1 of “The Golden Age“, version 0)

by Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich/TU Delft)

Pdf can be downloaded here 

History books are full of examples about the disintegration of complex human societies. The highly developed Maya Civilization collapsed, and the Roman Empire gradually declined. Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt were also known for thriving cultures, but this was a long time ago. Some declines of cultures had external origins, such as foreign invasions or environmental disasters. However, in many cases, societal transformations were caused by internal factors, namely a situation where the problem-solving approach of a society did not match its challenges anymore.

Two of the driving forces of societal transformation are population size and complexity. As population grows, a process of division of labour sets in. People will focus on offering products and services that they can more successfully produce than others, which in turn allows those to focus on their own talents. This process of specialization leads to increasing diversification and growing complexity. On the one hand, this tends to increase economic efficiency and prosperity, on the other hand it creates the challenge of coordination.

This diversification process has, in particular, caused a transition from primitive anarchic societies to feudalistic societies, which were ruled by nobility and kings in a top-down way. In a sense, they offered coordination, which created public benefits. The peak of centralized power was probably reached during the reign of Luis XIV. However, centralized autocratic control tends to restrain diversity, which obstructs innovation. Eventually, this makes autocratic systems dysfunctional, as they do not manage to keep up with environmental, cultural, demographic and technological change.

For example, when the steam engine was invented, this boosted productivity so much that no country could stay apart. The economic success of countries, which were exposed to military and economic competition, required entrepreneurial freedom. As the coordination by a king was limiting the economic development too much, the centralized control system collapsed and a decentralized approach emerged, driven by entrepreneurs.

But it did not end there. The early entrepreneurs did not care much about the environment and about workers either. As the industrialization progressed, entrepreneurs accumulated unprecedented wealth, while many workers lost their jobs and the basis of their existence. The inequality among people reached unprecedented levels, and many families struggled for their lives. As a consequence, the pitchforks were coming. The French revolution could not be stopped. It ended with a new societal framework based on liberty, equality, and solidarity (liberte, egalite, fraternite). In Austria and Germany, it took a world war until the emperors resigned.

Empirical data show that, throughout the world, transitions from autocratic to democratic regimes tend to occur when the gross national product per person, i.e. the economic development, crosses a certain critical threshold. Then, a system based on the division of power and broader participation results. Typically, this creates service societies, which are based on coordination and success principles such as administration, optimization, and globalization. Furthermore, legal regulations increase social and ecological standards such that growing economic efficiency does not produce too much unemployment. To cope with all the laws, new specialists are employed. Public schools and universities are established to deliver these specialists. In such a way, private, public, and environmental benefits become reasonably balanced, and prosperity spreads widely. By now, most people in developed countries enjoy a comfort of live that not even kings could have just a few centuries ago.

Of course, not everyone can live like a king. The Earth just does not have enough resources for this. And this is the problem we are running into – a problem that may actually decide about life and death. This problem is known since at least 1972, when Meadows and others published the book “The Limits to Growth”, a computer simulation study of exponential economic and population growth under conditions of limited resources. This study was commissioned by the Club of Rome and funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.

No matter what model parameters were chosen in the equations describing the world’s development, their computer simulations always ended in economic and population collapse. Their updated prediction is that economic collapse is just about to occur, while population collapse will start in 2030. By the end of this century, the world’s population would be largely diminished. In other words, if we ran our societies as before, billions of people would die. Was the world doomed?

Of course, the study was highly controversial. Many people did not want to hear this message, others started the environmental movement. Bill Clinton decided to commission another study, to get an independent point of view. This study, “Global 2000”, comprised more than 1000 pages. In essence, it came to the same conclusions: there would not be enough resources for everyone. As a consequence, a struggle for the world’s remaining resources set in. This triggered globalisation and wars to get access to those resources.

Many people did not bother to know why these wars were happening, why we had financial and economic crises, mass migration, and terrorism. However, if you think about it, it becomes clear that these problems have all one cause in common: our overuse of resources. Industrialized societies consume between 3.5 and 4.5 as much resources than what can be provided sustainably. This causes a scarcity of resources elsewhere and, hence, the conflicts and wars and mass migration and terrorism that we see throughout the world.

If we wanted to change this, we would have to create a sustainable economy. It seems, however, we would have to give up on high standards of living – a message that does not win elections. So, people were kept happy with the old Roman principle of “bread and circuses”, while big business volunteered to solve the world’s problems in the meantime. The neoliberal approach demanded not put any obstacles into the way. Only then, problems could be solved efficiently…

Since then, the economic credo was that any problem, which would become big enough, would create incentives for engineers to solve it. In this way, any existential threat would be fixed sooner or later. In fact, many new technologies and business fields have been created – from nuclear fusion to fission, from wind to solar power, from biofuel production to genetically modified food. Scientific and technological progress has been remarkable, but the world’s problems are still unsolved. The energy and resource consumption per person have further increased. Soil is degrading and water gets scarce in many areas of the world. Side effects of new technologies create additional problems.

We should ask ourselves this question: “What if something is fundamentally wrong with this approach?” Albert Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.” So, what is our current approach? Basically, whenever there is a problem, a committee will try to identify all promising solutions and pick the one that appears to be the best. Today, this solution will often be identified with the use of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. The optimum solution will then be “rolled out” globally. In many cases, this will be done by big international corporations. “Economies of scale”, i.e. additional gains in efficiency when producing huge amounts of products or services, seem to speak for monopolies. Free trade agreements promote large-scale solutions, implemented by global corporations.

This all sounds plausible. So, what could possibly be wrong with implementing an optimal solution worldwide? The issue is that this creates a lack of diversity, which makes the world more vulnerable to unexpected developments. It might also happen that the wrong goal function is chosen. For example, most of the world maximized profits rather than sustainability.

We must further be aware that any technological solution has side effects. Big solutions tend to cause big problems sooner or later. This can easily become a global threat. Modern pesticides are an example for this. The degradation of soil and water systems by industrial-scale agriculture is another one. Nuclear waste is a third one. Rolling out a single solution worldwide and over-standardization is actually the reason why so many problems have become of global scale. To make our world more resilient, it is necessary to return to more pluralistic and locally adapted solutions.

However, global vulnerability and too-big-to-fail problems are not the only issues we must worry about. Another one is the low innovation rate of most big companies. Innovation is slowed down by various factors: First, big businesses may not be exposed to the same degree of competition. For example, they often use patents to keep competitors at a distance, or they lobby for standards that favour their own products. Second, big companies tend to buy small innovative companies. In many cases, this is done just to take competitors out of the market or to keep them under control. Third, as diversity is the motor of innovation – lack of diversity decelerates innovation. It is, therefore, no wonder that we do not have enough and the right kinds of innovations to fix the world’s problems.

My claim is that we have ended up in trouble because the world was shaped by the ideas of only a few people. This has created a tunnel view. When the Limit to Growth study concluded that it was not enough to change the parameters to avoid future collapse, the right conclusion would have been that the system of equations – and the socio-economic system described by it – had to be changed in order to avert collapse. Instead of innovating the system, we have innovated within the existing system, which could not succeed. And, so, the efforts of the past decades have not been able to solve our problems.

Recently, politics has realized that things did not work out. They have brought the Paris Climate agreement on the way, and they are pushing now for open data, open science, open access, and open innovation. But is this enough to save us, and does it come on time?

Probably not. According to the updated Limit to Growth predictions, the economic collapse is expected any time now. In fact, the Pentagon has prepared for mass civil unrest. The level of inequality is now comparable to the times before the French revolution. Even though I do not mind people being rich, there is a much more fundamental problem that needs to be fixed. Namely, as the OECD, the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have stressed, the level of inequality is now so large that it obstructs further economic development. There is just not enough buying power to allow sufficiently many small and medium-sized companies to thrive.

If we want new ideas and business models to succeed, we must allow old companies to die, poor people to become rich, and rich people to become poor. Our current system, however, has been designed in such a way that those who are on top will almost ever stay on top. It has been shown that the richest families 600 years ago are still among the richest families today. While this increases the stability of our society, it undermines its resilience, i.e. its ability to adapt to changes. As a consequence, we are likely to see a big collapse rather than many small failures and successes, as it is needed for the evolution and progress of our society.

The tunnel view of our society becomes evident when reviewing developments in the past decades: while the principle of economic efficiency was once restricted to the economy, “utilitarian thinking” has eventually spread to many other sectors that had different goal functions before: this concerns public goods (for example, electricity and water production), the health system (which increasingly optimizes who gets certain treatments and who does not), politics (creating a “market-conform democracy”), science (increasingly having to engage with business and to deliver marketable ideas), religion (Easter, Christmas as consumer events), and culture (considering the arts market, for example). This has basically undermined the pluralistic value system and the separation of public and private spheres that a flourishing society needs.

We have increasingly squeezed our beautiful, multi-faceted, pluralistic, multi-dimensional world into a one-dimensional system ruled by money. In such a “utilitarian” system, the value and power of a person or institution is determined only by its wealth. This approach is perfect to create a strictly hierarchical system, in which money makes the world go ‘round. However, this is not a system in which the best ideas win. Instead, the one who owns more money can determine what will happen. This creates a system of winners and losers – in fact, many losers and very few winners. In other word, the system does not work for everybody. It has worked for the developed world, as long as there was an abundance of resources. But now, resources are getting short…

Would we have reduced our consumption of non-renewable resources by 3 percent each year, we would have a sustainable economy by now. Unfortunately, we have not drawn the right conclusions from the Limits to Growth study in the 1970ies. And so, many people get to feel shortages now. During the last economic crisis, tens of millions have lost their jobs and are kept at the existential minimum since then. While one would think that this would reduce the consumption of resources, it turns out that the economy has not become more sustainable than in the 1970ies – on the contrary! The world’s consumption of resources is bigger than ever. The entire strategy to optimize the world has failed, and thus the system of today will break into pieces sooner or later.

However, rather than mobilising the power of ideas of everyone to find solutions that we need, people are being distracted from the state of the world – by public and social media, by entertainment, fake news and games. We are made to believe that it is just a matter of time until the economic situation will improve again and full employment will return. The truth is far from this. In many European countries, youth unemployment is already above 50 percent, and Artificial Intelligence is about to cause another wave of automation. Experts believe that many of today’s tasks will be performed by intelligent algorithms and machines in a couple of years.

Even though there are no exact numbers, our societies will probably have to reinvent half of the economy in just two or three decades, if we want to have jobs for all and a sustainable, low-carbon economy by 2030, as the United Nations demand. The sustainability goals of the UN Agenda 2030 would, of course, be easy to reach, if a billion people or more happened to die. Therefore, an optimisation approach implies serious moral dilemmas. Just imagine to live in a world in which it became acceptable to kill people to save the planet. Then, all sorts of terrible things would happen…
The real hard challenge is to reach sustainability without a population collapse. However, I personally believe we should not be desperate, as there is a solution, which I will explain in the later chapters of this book. So far, however, there is no evidence that the necessary decisions to implement this solution have been made. Instead, another kind of system is on the way, a dystopian eco-totalitarism. This brings us to a crossroads. If things ought to end well, our lives will have to change – we have to decide for a new path.

Why is it not possible to continue as before? This is not only because resources would get short, but also because of today’s money system. As discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, there are many signs that capitalism 1.0 – the capitalism we know it – will not work much longer. Inequality and unemployment have reached a critical level, which makes societies break apart.

It is also concerning that economic growth has been poor for almost a decade now. This sounds like good news to those who demand de-growth, but it is actually not, because today’s capitalism needs growth to pay back loans, on which most investments are based, plus the interest rates. As interest rates for debts are higher than interest rates for savings, the overall debt level in the world tends to increase. This is certainly true for public debts, which kept increasing for decades. And so it is just a matter of time until some countries cannot carry the burden of their debts anymore. In order to delay their bankruptcy, interest rates have been pushed below zero, which however threatens the savings of ordinary people.

What is worse: zero and negative interest rates blind the “eye of capitalism”. Traditionally, the competition for higher turnouts (dividends, interest rates) has driven the successful allocation of capital. However, if loans are cheap or taking loans becomes a means to make money, capital will increasingly misallocated. Low or negative interest rates are also an existential threat for life insurances and pension funds. However, if the central banks raise the interest rates again, as they have indicated, then it is likely that many home owners, banks, companies and even countries will go bankrupt. Unfortunately, governments will not anymore be able to absorb the problem by increasing their debts. This time, the financial system will collapse, if we do not push the reset button.

By that time, however, most assets will be in the hands of just a few people. As I mentioned before, 8 people currently own as much as the poorest 50 percent of this planet. If one considers that the Federal Reserve (FED) is privately owned and the European Central Bank is also private in part (as are most other central banks around the world), it becomes clear that most of the world is owned by just a few families. The Quantitative Easing programs, which has created trillions of new dollars and Euros to keep the world economy from collapsing, has largely accelerated this concentration of wealth.
Today, the money system is designed in such a way that the central banks and their owners earn money, when governments or banks need loans. In other words, the worse our countries are doing and the more debts they are making, the more is the world owned by just a few people. This implies some crucial questions: “Is this reasonable, is it fair, or is it at least useful? If our countries are owned by a few super-rich individuals, are we still free? And what are their plans with this world?” 

(Comments and inputs to are welcome!)

Thursday, 26 January 2017

THE GOLDEN AGE – How to Build a Better Digital Society

by Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich/TU Delft)

Introduction: Another Revolution or War?

PDF of article can be downloaded here

As it turns out, we are in the middle of a revolution – the digital revolution. This revolution isn’t just about technology: it will reinvent most business models and transform all economic sectors, but, it will also fundamentally change the organization of our society. The best way to imagine this transition may be the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. In a few years, the world will look very different…

This does perhaps sound exaggerated – but then again, probably not. We are now seeing a perfect storm that has been created by the confluence of many powerful new digital technologies. This includes social media, cloud storage and cloud computing, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and cognitive computing, robotics, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, Blockchain Technology, and Virtual Reality. Smartphones are just one example of a technology deemed science fiction two decades ago, but is now real and ubiquitous. Many people cannot imagine an existence without these technologies anymore.

The digital technologies described above now reorganize our world. Companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook, established 15 to 40 years ago, often in garages by students without academic degrees, are now among the most valuable companies of the world. By way of disruptive innovations, these technology giants have overtaken the traditional large corporations in the oil or car industries.

The company AirBnb is now challenging the hotel business. Uber is troubling the taxi, transport and logistics sectors. Bitcoin, the digital currency, threatens the big banks. With its fashionable electric cars, Tesla makes classical car companies look out-dated. Google plans to replace today’s individual vehicle traffic by promoting “transport as a service” based on self-driving cars. We may soon have the same level of mobility that we have today while using only 15 percent of today’s vehicles. Parking lots, garages, traffic police and more, may soon be things of the past. 3D printers enable the cheap production of personalized products. In perspective, global mass production will be gradually replaced by individually customized, locally created products.

These are just some of the notable trends. However, anyone who thinks that the digital revolution is just about faster Internet, smarter devices, more data, better services, and new business models largely underestimates the “creative destruction” that comes along with digital technologies.

Thanks to new machine learning approaches such as “deep learning”, recent progress in the area of Artificial Intelligence has been remarkable. These systems learn by themselves, and they are getting smarter at an exponentially accelerating pace. By now, intelligent computer algorithms can perform as well as humans in terms of reading text, understanding spoken language, or recognizing patterns. They can also learn repetitive and rule-based procedures. They tend to make less mistakes, do not get tired, and do not complain. They also do not have to pay taxes. In other words, it is only a matter of time until they will replace human jobs. This will also hit many middle-class jobs. Later on, however, I will explain how we can turn this into an opportunity.

Some people hope that, for each job lost, a new one will be created, and that these jobs will be better than those today as economic progress advances. However, people may forget that the transition from the agricultural to the industrial society, as well as the transition from there to the service society, was accompanied by serious financial and economic crises, by revolutions and wars. Many countries are already in the midst of a financial and economic crisis, and in some countries, the unemployment rate of young people has passed 50 percent. In many places, the effective incomes in the lower and middle class have been stagnant or decreasing, while the level of inequality has grown dramatically.

In 2016, Oxfam revealed that 50 percent of the world’s property was in the hands of 62 people. By 2017, half of the world’s property had ended up in the hands of only 8 people. Four of them are Americans running big IT companies. In the meantime, the level of inequality is comparable to the situation before the French revolution. This implies that the purchasing power of people is eroding, such that further economic development is obstructed. Consumers can no longer afford buying all the products that companies can provide. Many companies and banks could cease to exist, and the richest segment of people (“the elite”) start to worry about an impending revolution. The current situation is highly unstable and does not seem to serve anyone well. The rise of populism is one result of this.

So it appears that the current world order is breaking down. Even though we have better technologies and more data than ever before, these have been accompanied by increased global challenges. As the world becomes more networked, systemic complexity is growing faster than the data available to describe it, and the amount of data is accumulating faster than the data we can process and transmit. Paradoxically, even though technological solutions are more powerful than ever, attempts to control the world in a top-down way appear to fail. At the World Economic Forum in 2017, representatives of the elites could no longer deny the impending crisis. The success principles of the past – globalization, optimization and regulation – did not seem to work well nor to persuade people anymore. After president Trump’s inauguration, the German Minister of Exterior, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and chancellor Angela Merkel both announced the end of a historical era. This may be the end of globalism and capitalism as we know it.

There are several reasons for these developments, and they are all based on self-created problems. The first reason is that, as we go on networking the world, the complexity is increasing factorially, at an amazing pace. Importantly, in a highly connected world, the intended effects will often not result because of side effects, feedback effects, domino effects, and cascading effects. Cascading effects, in particular, can easily get out of hand through a series of coupled events, which may end disastrously. Electrical blackouts are one example.

The second reason is the attempt to steer each individual’s behaviour (I will discuss this later in detail). Today, those who run our societies change their “commands” at the same speed at which individuals are trying to adjust to them. This undermines a hierarchical organization, which requires a slower speed of change on the controlling “top” level as compared to the controlled “bottom” level. Natural hierarchies exemplify this, as they occur in physics (atoms, molecules, solid bodies, planets, solar systems, galaxies) and biology (cells, organs, organisms, social communities, organizations, societies).

We are living in times where our employers, the state, and companies are all the time trying to make us do all sorts of things. This obviously causes a fragmentation of attention and action, distraction and chaos. This will be elaborated in more detail later. One result of this development is, that we are increasingly locked in informational filter bubbles or personalized echo chambers. This makes us lose our ability to understand other points of view, or to find reasonable compromises and consensus. Consequently, conflict and extremism in our societies have increased, which in turn undermines social cohesion. One might say that our society is increasingly divided into social atoms, which are now trying to find new bonds. Populism is a side effect of this.

I must stress that this has created a highly dangerous situation, which has the potential to collapse today’s social order and also that of the world. This development was predicted years ago, but little has been done to stop the underlying cascading effects. Now that we are at the tipping point, this means that our future is more uncertain and unpredictable than ever. As a consequence, people may lose orientation. For example, we may end up with a data-driven version of fascism (a big brother society or “brave new world”), or of communism (a “benevolent dictatorship” that believes it knows what would be best for everyone and imposes this on us), or of feudalism (a “surveillance capitalism” that serves us according to our “personal value”, as measured by a “citizen score”).

However, we may also make the conscious decision to upgrade democracy and capitalism as we know it, by digital means. On the whole, standing at a tipping point creates unprecedented opportunities for mankind to re-invent society, and to build a better world. However, if we continue as before, we may stand to experience the breakout of large-scale wars. Such wars are quite likely, and they may break out for several reasons:

  • The new wave of automation driven by artificial intelligence and robotics may cause unemployment to sky-rocket, and undermine the stability of societies, which can easily lead to a war.
  • The spread of populism and nationalism implies dangers for peace as well, as it often values people of different ethnic origin and cultural background differently. Cultures that consider themselves superior, however, tend to wage wars against those they consider inferior. This tendency is further nourished by the claim that “war is the mother of invention” (Heraclitus even said, “of everything”).
  • The probability that we may see a financial and economic collapse is also quite high. In fact, the Limit to Growth study, which tries to anticipate the future fate of our planet, predicts such collapse in the imminent future. The on-going financial crisis makes it clear that capitalism as we know it, is failing. Mass unemployment in many countries, public and private debt levels, low economic growth rates and negative interest rates indicate that we have reached a point of no return. At the 2017 Davos meeting, many have concluded that capitalism 1.0 is losing support – it will (have to) be replaced by something else.
  • Impending future resource shortages will cause further problems, which can also precipitate a war.
  • Climate change could instigate wars as well, namely by desertification, the deterioration of once fruitful soil, or natural disasters (e.g. floods). It is also expected that climate change may cause the largest loss of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs, which may undermine our ecosystem and our food chain. 
  • Furthermore, we may see cultural or religious clashes, and this seems to be already happening.
  •  A worrying concern is poor maturity in the constructive use of social media and digital technologies. Shit storms, hate speech, and fake news are illustrations of this. We have to look back in history to the days when the printing press was invented. One result was the 30-year war that claimed the lives of 5-8 million people. Similarly, the invention of the radio was an important factor in the success of the Nazi regime. Radio enabled the spread of propaganda on a previously unprecedented scale, from which people were not able to distance themselves enough. This result was the Holocaust and World War II, which claimed up to 80 million lives. Today social media news has become the battlefield of a world-wide disinformation war. Shit storms, hate speech, and fake news appear to get out of hand. How will this play out?
In conclusion, there are multiple factors present that can contribute towards large-scale wars. Given the “nuclear overkill”, this could claim an unprecedented number of victims and, in all likelihood, make large swathes of our planet uninhabitable. Should this happen, it would be the most shameful event of human history, and we would never be able to believe in human values or civilisation again.

What makes me optimistic, however, is the fact that we know about all these dangers and we have history to learn from.

Solving the above problems is not a trivial exercise. However, new solutions have been recently proposed. The crucial issue for us is whether these new ideas spread quickly enough, and whether politics will have the courage to implement them now.

Making the right decisions and taking appropriate actions has become a matter of life and death. If we go on as before, we will probably experience a number of global disasters. I am convinced, however, that the time to create a framework for global prosperity and peace has come.

In the following chapters, I will describe the issues with our current socio-economic approach in further detail, and why it is outdated and destined to fail. I will also present an alternative vision of a better future for everyone – one that is based on the success principles of co-creation, co-evolution, collective intelligence, and self-organization. I am convinced that these principles are able to lift our economy and society to the next level. This should make society more resilient to unexpected developments and shocks (sometimes called “black swans”). Without a doubt, we have arrived at a crossroad. The question we must now ask ourselves is: Will we have the courage follow a new path, or will we continue our old path and fall off the cliff?

(Comments and inputs to are welcome!)

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Complexity Science has a great Future

Dirk Helbing, ETH Zurich

Complexity Science is more important than ever. Even though there is now big data about everything in the world, I don’t believe that we don’t need science any longer, in contrast to what Chris Anderson has claimed in The End of Theory: the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete (Wired Magazine 16(7), 2008). He basically suggested that if you just had enough data, the truth would reveal itself.

With the data available to us, is it possible to know everything and to build a crystal ball that allows us to see everything that is going on in the world in real time? In fact, such projects are under way, built by the military and research centers around the world. Stephen Wolfram has claimed that “Humans are more predictable than Elementary Particles”. And it seems that CERN has actually built such a prediction machine that uses artificial intelligence to learn patterns in the data of human social behavior.

But these are not just research projects, because "knowledge is power". So they are political projects, too. This raises the question if so much data will enable the ruling of a wise king or a benevolent dictator. Could we optimize the world? Could society be run like a giant machine?

There are companies that seem to be working on such concepts, such as IBM and Google. They aim at reprogramming our society and building an operating system for it that would guide our decision making, thinking, and behavior with personalized information.

This kind of technology has also become interesting for politics. We are heading towards remote control of people. This could be a powerful approach: Google could manipulate billions of people on our planet. It is, therefore, worrying is that people like Larry Page said that there are a lot of things he likes to do but unfortunately he cannot, because it is illegal. 

Our society is at a cross road. No question, we will live in a data based society – but what kind of society will it be? Feudalism 2.0, Facism 2.0, or Communism 2.0?

It is concerning that there are voices claiming that democracy is an outdated technology. We see that democracy is in trouble in some countries such as Poland, Turkey, and France. We might easily loose what we have built over hundreds of years – freedom, human dignity, fairness and justice, pluralism, democracy, participation, social norms and culture, security and peace, and many jobs. 

It is time to say Stop. The magic formula "more data = more knowledge = more power = more success" does not work in many cases. Correlation does not equal causation.

There is also a technical reason for this: even though processing power increases exponentially, data volume increases even faster – the fraction of data we can process is going down over time. Moreover, as we go on networking the world, systemic complexity is growing even faster, which implies a loss of top-down control and a need of distributed control.

We need to build a digital democracy, which we may call "democracy 2.0". We need to learn how to bring great ideas and the knowledge of many people and artificial intelligence systems together. For this, we need to build online deliberation platforms.

It is not the best individual solution that wins, but diversity: the combination of many solutions creates collective intelligence. Being confronted with so many problems in the 21st century, such as financial, economic and spending crisis, massive unemployment, responses of decision-makers have become ever more desperate.

Our main problem is the lack of sustainability. We are overusing the resources of the world, in particular nitrogen and phosphors, but also water – thus creating massive problems. 

We need a new kind of economic system, capitalism 2.0, which is liberal, democratic, participatory, social and ecological. This can now be built by combining the Internet of Things, block chain technology and complexity science. To build a circular economy, we need a system that can measure, value and trade externalities – external effects of interactions between people, companies and the environment. 

We have started to build such a system called "Nervousnet": a planetary nervous system based on Internet of Things technology run by the citizens. It is using smartphones as sensors to measure the environment. To be able to trust the system, informational self-determination is taken seriously. 

It also becomes possible now to map resources and who uses them with an app called But we need to go a step further. It is necessary to create a multi-dimensional incentive and reward system: "finance 4.0" or "social-ecological finance" that allows us to create feedback loops in the system in order to support favorable kinds of self-organization. 

This system can now be built. BitCoin has shown that it is possible to create money in a bottom up way. By measuring externalities of different kinds, people would create different kinds of money (and earn money), and this money would eventually rise to the top, thereby benefitting everyone. 

This would enable us to turn the digital dessert that Europe currently is into a digital rainforest with digital opportunities for everyone, where interoperability would allow to combine existing products and services in order to create new products and services, which unleashes combinatorial innovation. 

It is time to build this open and participatory information, innovation, production, and service ecosystem. Let’s do this together. 

Short Bio:
Dirk Helbing is Professor of Computational Social Science at ETH Zurich and member of the German Academy of Sciences "Leopoldina". Helbing is member of the Global Brain Institute and the International Centre for Earth Simulation. He heads the and initiatives, which want to open up the opportunities of Big Data and the Internet of Things for everyone, and leads the PhD program "Engineering Social Technologies for a Responsible Digital Future" at TU Delft.