Prof. Dirk Helbing: Digital Democracies will Be Able to Combine the Best of all Systems
Sofia, November 20 (Nikolay Velev of BTA) - Around the world,
we are seeing the rise of different forms of technological
totalitarianism but the future digital democracies will be able
to combine the best of all systems: competition from capitalism,
collective intelligence from democracies, trial and error, and
the promotion of superior solutions, and intelligent design
(AI), Dirk Helbing, a professor of computational social science,
said in a BTA interview. He works at the Department of
Humanities, Social and Political Sciences of the Swiss Federal
Institute of Technology in Zurich and was among the participants
in an international online conference on The Impact of
Artificial Intelligence on Our Society hosted by Sofia on
Following is the full interview:
Q: Prof. Helbing in your article Will Democracy Survive Big Data
and Artificial Intelligence, you use Kant's famous quote "What
is Enlightenment?": "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his
self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use
one's understanding without guidance from another." How far AI
has its roots in the Enlightenment project? Would you give a
short answer to the question you ask in the "Google as God?"
A: The problems of the world are complex. Some think we need
superintelligent systems to help us understand and solve our
problems. Some would go so far that such superintelligent
systems will soon be around, and they would be so much superior
to today's human beings that they would be similar to Gods, and
we should just do what they say. This would mean to give up our
autonomy and freedom. Control would be handed over to machines.
While some consider this a utopian paradise, others see it as an
dystopian future and ultimate threat to humanity.
Q: The big concern of many theorists and critics of industrial
capitalism in the late 19th century and the first half of the
20th century was that men put a lot in their work and were paid
too little for that, had a low living standard and existed
merely as an appendix to the machine. With so much of the
present-day forms of labor involving the virtual space, do you
think man-machine relations have changed?
A: Companies use Artificial Intelligence and robotics to
increase the efficiency of their production and reduce costs. As
long as people have to pay taxes for their work and robots do
not, this is a pretty unfair competition. It could get millions
of workers in trouble. It is clear that we need a new tax system
and also a new social contract so that future societies would
work for humans (and robots would work for them, too).
Currently, there is a danger of a race between man and machine,
while the goal should be to create a framework for human-machine
symbiosis. We still have to work on the political, societal and
economic framework for this, and have to do it quickly.
Q: What, if any, is the threat for the modern man from having a
digital copy of himself in the Big Data? What are the worst
forms of misuse of this data and how far misuse can go?
A: Today, everyone of us is being profiled and targeted. It
seems that every day many megabytes, if not gigabytes of data
are being collected about us. This leads to highly detailed
digital doubles, which reflect our economic situation and
consumption behavior, our social network, our behavior,
psychology, and health. Such data can be used to manipulate our
thinking, emotions, and behaviors. It can be used to manipulate
elections. It can be used to mob us and exert pressure on us.
And it can be used for life and death decisions, as it happens
in ethical dilemmas such as triage decisions. Most of such data
uses today seem to happen without our explicit knowledge and
consent. This is why I demand a platform for informational
Q: You say that Big Data is "the oil of twenty first century,
but people increasingly add that, apparently, we haven't
invented the motor yet to use it". What do you think could be
the motor and how the economy would change once we invent it and
put it to use?
A: Some consider Artificial Intelligence (AI) to be the motor
that runs on Big Data, the so-called "new oil". However, while
many of us have an own car, most AI systems currently work for
the interests of very few people only. I think that we would
have to build something like a digital catalyst: a sufficiently
open information ecosystem that everyone can easily contribute
to and seamlessly benefit from. This would allow for
Q: You quote a researcher claiming that AI can overperform the
human brain by 2030 and all human brains by 2060. Is there
anything in man that the machines cannot beat?
A: Big Data and AI neglect whatever cannot be measured well.
This concerns human consciousness, love, freedom, creativity,
and human dignity, for example. These are characteristics that
matter a lot for humans. Therefore, I think that humans are not
just biological robots. We should not confuse the two. Being
confronted with intelligent machines will eventually show us
what it really means to be human and what is special about us.
Q: You say that 90 per cent of the present-day professions are
based on skills which can soon be replaced by machine algorithms
or robots. If that many people lose their jobs, should we
expect new social stratification based on virtual space? Do you
see a risk for such possible stratification to bring about a
repetition of some events of the 20th century?
A: Such revolutions have typically brought serious societal
instabilities along with them such as wars. A lot of people died
on battlefields, because social reforms were lagging behind. If
we are not smarter this time, such a situation could indeed
happen again. This time, however, autonomous systems might
decide about lives and deaths. Such deadly triage decisions
would call the very foundations of our civilization in question.
Triage means a war-like regime, in which human rights and human
dignity are restricted so much that even the right to live is
called in question.
Q: In your book Towards Digital Enlightenment: Essays on the
Dark and Light Sides of the Digital Revolution, you use the term
"digital fascism". Could you tell us how it differs from the
traditional totalitarian ideologies in the 20th century and what
new threats it brings for society?
A: Around the world, we are seeing the rise of different forms
of technological totalitarianism. The Western variant is often
called "surveillance capitalism", and people are treated
according to scores such as the "customer lifetime value". In
other countries such as China, a behavior-based "social credit
score" determines the rights, opportunities, and lives of
people, who are thereby turned into submissive subjects. These
systems are characterized by a strange combination of a
digitally enabled communism (command economy), feudalism (due to
their hierarchical nature), and fascism (due to their
suppressive nature). Typical elements of today's digital
societies are: mass surveillance, experiments with people,
behavioral manipulation and mind control, social engineering,
propaganda and censorship, forced conformity, (predictive)
policing, the interference with privacy and human rights, and
the management of people similar to objects, ignoring human
Q: If fascism has become digital, what should be the resistance
A: This is a difficult question, as nobody can really escape
surveillance in the cyber-physical world of today. Avoiding
digital devices and platforms does not seem to be a real option.
Usually, politicians and courts should ensure a benevolent use
of technology, but in view of "overpopulation" and "lack of
sustainability", they seem to be losing control, as the "Corona
emergency" and "climate emergency" show. Nevertheless, we need
to ensure a fair use of AI that benefits everyone according to
the principle of equal opportunities. Everything else is
destined to fail, if you ask me. We are in the middle of a
struggle with the old powers reigning the material,
consumption-oriented, carbon-based energy world. We need to
break free from the shackles of that era to enter a new age of
peace and prosperity.
Q: Does global communication on Internet help or hinder
A: Both. Despite efforts to control global communication
through algorithms, there is a lot of self-organization in the
increasingly networked world we are living in. It is time to
upgrade democracies with digital means, because empowering
citizens and civil society is going to make our countries more
resilient, such that they can better cope with the challenges
ahead of us.
Q: Do we need an entirely new form of democracy today or we need
to stand up for what the Western societies have achieved?
A: We need to develop further what we have achieved in the past.
In fact, digital democracies will be able to combine the best
of all systems: competition (capitalism), collective
intelligence (democracies), trial and error, and the promotion
of superior solutions (evolution and culture), and intelligent
design (AI). Digital democracies will make our societies
resilient to challenges and surprises, disasters and crises, by
a combination of redundancies, diverse solutions, decentralized
organization, participatory approaches, solidarity, and digital
assistance supporting self-organization and mutual help. NV