DÜSSELDORF Armin Nassehi is professor of sociology at the Technical University of Munich and author of numerous books in which he examines current social phenomena in clear language. On 15 March, at 11 a.m., he opens the series “Düsseldorfer Reden”, to which the Rheinische Post invites together with the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus. In his speech, Nassehi will talk about the social function of digitization and will also touch on the field of artificial intelligence. Many books on digitization try to highlight the benefits and dangers of technology. On the other hand, they do not want to explain what digitalisation is, but rather to consider which problem it is the solution for. What problem does it solve? NASSEHI I assume that techniques only become established in society if they perform a function. We live in a world that can only be comprehensible through data-based pattern recognition techniques. This has been the case since the emergence of nation states and modern working capitalism. Suddenly, questions of supply, education, and military planning became too complex to be answered out of sight. So one had to recognize invisible structures of society and seek regularities in them. Digital technology is ideal for this, because its mathematical power means that it has enormous possibilities to generate both data and evaluate data. In other words, to recognize structures and to develop control possibilities. Digitisation is eating into all areas of life with great dynamism. What drives this dynamic?
NASSEHI The engine is the success. If you are wondering where digitalisation is being used, you have to say: everywhere. As private people, we notice this because we carry data processing devices that tell us about pattern recognition, where we have to go in a big city, how we can compare prices, and so on. But the technology is also used invisibly: there is no longer a traffic light without analysing traffic flows. Pattern recognition helps in medicine, air transport, and business. The technology is successful because it makes life easier and more convenient.
Isn’t the engine really a pursuit of profit? With convenient solutions you can make money, that’s why people work on it.
NASSEHI Profit Striving is never a reason in itself. One has to wonder why things bring profit. Namely, only if it can be integrated into the concrete everyday life, even if it sometimes satisfies needs that one would not have without this technology. But, of course, data is the raw material with which you make money today. 150 years ago, capital accumulated around coal and steel, which is why the Ruhr area was once the richest region in Germany. Today, it is rather the greater Munich area, as capital is increasing among companies that collect and process data.
The provisional end of development is artificial intelligence – according to its theory, the pattern that recognizes itself is self-propelled. NASSEHI With artificial intelligence, a new development begins, namely the step of experiencing to acting technology. This is a sociological distinction, experience and action that can be applied to digitization. The question is: To whom do I attribute actions? Classical technology looks at existing data sets, that’s experience. In the meantime, however, there is technology that itself generates the data that it analyzes. For example, the autonomous vehicle. This must generate data from sensors, which then give the world through which it moves. This leads to paradoxes, such as the plane crashes, where the on-board computer calculated everything correctly, but the plane crashed anyway. It’s reminiscent of man. He is also dependent on his perceptual apparatus, which he cannot perceive past. This is a clear source of error. But we expect artificial intelligence to be infallible – because it is technology. But even formal systems are not absolutely determined. The computer is naser than humans? NASSEHI If you like, the computer is just a human being. Do we have to be afraid of independent digital systems? NASSEHI Two things trigger this fear: that the systems are so incredibly powerful, so in some ways they are far superior to us. And that the question of responsibility for their decisions. Fear is always a sign that you don’t understand things. But we will get used to it. But a problem will remain. We can bear to say after an accident: it was a person who is making mistakes. But the sentence: It was an algorithm that makes mistakes – that is hardly possible. Worse, perhaps, technology has what it takes to have total control. NASSEHI Yes, for example via facial recognition and movement profiles. Or even by making us buy recommendations that are embarrassingly hitting our tastes.
We are not so individual – here, too, technology attacks the human self-image. NASSEHI We are both, tremendously individualistic and highly predictable. How I live with my wife, how we have furnished our apartment, what music I listen to, that follows certain patterns, which is of course humiliating to recognize. However, her colleague Eva Illouz shows that, for example, dating through algorithms only works badly, because we fall in love with the different detail, into a peculiarity. NASSEHI Illouz fundamentally questions partnership. But it is true that we are not completely in the pattern. Otherwise, the conversation we are having here would have been established beforehand.W