The 2018 complexity session in Alpbach
Our External Faculty member J. Stephen Lansing will represent the Complexity Science Hub Vienna at this year’s Technology Symposium at the European Forum Alpbach.
The panel “Our digital future — How human will it be?” is chaired by Helga Nowotny, who is also Chair of the CSH Science Advisory Board.
The panel speakers are:
- Mirta Galesic from Santa Fe Institute
- J. Stephen Lansing from NTU Singapore & CSH External Faculty
- Martina Mara, Johannes Kepler University Linz
“Coping with uncertainty in the age of information”
Digital technologies promise to facilitate our social life but can paradoxically increase our subjective and objective uncertainty. More information about our social worlds reveal their underlying complexity while forcing us to make endless choices about what to focus on and whom to trust.
At the same time the number of interactions between all elements of social systems has increased, making them inherently less predictable. In her talk, Mirta will first give an overview of different layers of uncertainty that we experience in complex social systems, and describe strategies that people use to cope with uncertainty. These strategies are often inherently social: we learn from each other and solve problems in groups.
She will further show that groups that are most successful in solving complex problems are often small and relatively disconnected from each other. Digital technologies that speed up and increase connectivity can therefore have the effect of making our societies less smart.
Finally, Mirta will describe how we can harvest the information from our social worlds to improve understanding of complex social systems. Our studies show that asking people about their social circles can help improve election predictions, and that analyzing comments that people leave on online news sites can help understand the dynamics of social change.
“Big Data on a small planet”
Stephen will discuss the convergence of two apparently unrelated phenomena. The first is the emergence of “Big data” as a new phase in the evolution of consumer capitalism. The Frankfurt School theorists were the first to comment on the synergy between technology, initially television, and the effectiveness of targeted marketing for the sale of consumer goods.
“Big data” takes this a giant step further, supplementing broadcasting (mass media) with torrents of data on individual consumers. Does Amazon know more about us than we do ourselves? From this perspective, the mid-twentieth century observations of Adorno and Horkheimer seem prescient: “Reason itself has become the mere instrument of the all-inclusive economic apparatus … the primordial fear of losing one’s own name is realized”.
The second phenomenon is the accelerating impact of the global economic system on the Earth System (the sum of our planet’s interacting physical, chemical, biological and human processes). A 2015 study of 24 global indicators shows a “Great Acceleration”, triggered by the expansion of consumer capitalism that began in the mid 20th century. It is not surprising that such planetary-scale biophysical data is not yet integrated into Big Data; which focuses on micro scale economic behavior. But before the oceans contain more plastic than fish, one way or another the connections will surely be recognized, and when they are, our imagined digital future will change.
“From AI mythology to responsible design — Shifting the debate, empowering people”
Artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics are arguably the buzzwords of the moment. A simple search on Google Trends paints a picture on how strongly the interest has increased over the last couple of years.
Indeed, smart technologies have come a long way and—besides significant risks—they entail many opportunities for humanity: From finding new cures for diseases to enabling greater autonomy for the elderly, from optimizing renewable energy sources to granting us more free time and space for creativity.
All of that requires productive thinking about how we want to live in the future, how we want to utilize robotics and AI for our goals, and how we can shape these powerful tools to be ethical, sustainable, trustworthy and beneficial to as many people as possible.
The current AI hype, however, comes along with public myths and misconceptions that are counterproductive to fruitful discourse, because they distract us from real-world potentials and real-world limitations of smart technologies. Stereotypical media images of highly humanlike robots make people afraid of the wrong things. They fuel our diffuse fears of being dominated or made redundant by “intentional” machines while we should actually discuss the reproduction of discriminatory bias by self-learning systems trained on man-made data.
Sensationalist AI news and industrial attempts to raise investor awareness inflate expectations of the technical status quo while some start-ups, paradoxically, still engage real humans to quietly carry out bots’ tasks. At the same time, many people outside of the tech circle lack a basic understanding of how current AI methods work. They not only have to rely on publicly spread technology myths in their opinion forming, they neither have a chance to realize that entry barriers to smart technologies are in fact lower than usually expected.
For making real progress in human-centered technology design, we need an informed public discourse that turns away from science fiction and empowers more people to take part in it.