Over the past four weeks, and in cooperation with Bonn's "General-Anzeiger" newspaper, Deutsche Telekom has been holding "FutuRead," a series in which well-known science fiction authors read from and present novels about our digital future. At the close of this series, Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Höttges explains why he is convinced that digitalization holds the promise to improve our lives.
"Fiction does not remain fiction for long. And certainly not on the Internet." Vinton Cerf, one of the "fathers of the Internet," was right. Because his insight is correct, FutuRead's "belletristic" approach to basic future-related issues was only superficially far-fetched. More and more often, science fiction is changing into science fact. Tinkerers and inventors around the world are turning the things that authors dream up into real products.
Here's just one example, involving the TV series Star Trek, which I'm sure many of you used to watch. In that series, Capt. Kirk had a device known as a "tricorder" that was of great value in unknown galaxies, because it was able to sense, analyze and record an enormous range of different types of data, including physical, chemical and biological data. As it happens, a device very similar to Kirk's instrument now exists. An Israeli company now offers SCiO, a pocket-sized "molecular sensor." The device has a (near-infrared) light source with which a user can illuminate samples – which can be any type of objects, including food, medications, construction materials, etc. – thereby enabling the emitted light to interact with the samples' molecules. Because each type of molecule vibrates in its own unique way, each type of molecule reflects the light with a unique optical signature. A spectrometer in the device collects the reflected light, breaks it down into its characteristic spectrum, and then the device transmits the resulting spectrum data to a central computer. In other words, to the cloud, where it's compared with existing data. The result is then transmitted back to the device. This allows a user to verify, for instance, whether a medication is genuine or fake.
So we see that science fiction authors have certainly been able predictors of the future. And if you take a look at how much R&D – in Silicon Valley, in Israel and here in Europe – is currently being invested in "artificial intelligence," then it doesn't seem unrealistic to think that scenarios such as those described by Marc Elsberg (Zero & Blackout) and Leif Randt (Planet Magon) in their readings in Bonn could become a reality sooner or later. Nor does it seem unrealistic to think that machines could surpass us even in that which we refer to as "thought." By 1997, computers were already able to beat us at chess. In 2016, a similar milestone was reached with the Chinese game of Go, which is much more complex. This trend is continuing. Amazon's new "Echo" system, for example, is already able to understand speech and carry out spoken commands so well that it is able to serve as a useful digital assistant.
But in spite of these outstanding technical successes, we find that the future scenarios thought up by such authors tend not to be utopias. In other words, they tend not to be stories that describe a better life. No, they tend to be dystopias. Stories that paint dark visions of the future, in the tradition of Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (1984). These dystopian visions serve not only to build on the fears that already exist among the populace; they also help shape and develop these fears. I have the impression, for example, that we here in Germany are already concerned about "big data" simply because that term contains the word "big."
Personally, I do not share this pessimistic view of the societal impacts of digitalization. In fact, I think that digitalization is a great gift. This is because digitalization can simplify and improve our lives. For example, by facilitating participation in the knowledge and information society – such as participation, around the world, in education, through courses that one can take over the Internet. And digitalization will produce new products that will support us in our everyday lives. Self-driving cars, and robots that help us in the household, immediately come to mind and, in fact, are almost commonplace examples of this trend.
I thus think it is all the more important to counter the authors' dystopias with a vision of a utopian digital world in which data analysis and interactions with "smart" machines are something very good. Such a utopia, for example, was recently described by none other than Barack Obama, President of the United States, in an article in the magazine "Wired." President Obama is also convinced that technological progress will continue to improve our lives significantly. And his main argument is as convincing as it is simple: because this is how it has worked out in the past. In all probability, the present we live in is better than any time that came before it. Fewer people today live in poverty. We are winning the fight against diseases such as AIDS. More children are going to school today than ever before, and we have reduced the numbers of illiterate people. We communicate via devices such as the iPhone, and with devices such as virtual reality goggles, we can visit far-away places in a flash. The "workplace of the future" has long since become a reality. "Latte macchiato" jobs, jobs conducted not in an office but in a café or at home, are already a reality thanks to laptops and the Internet. Until just a short time ago, none of this existed. But now it does, and it's giving us more freedom.
Of course we also face a number of additional challenges. Challenges such as climate change, social inequality and the fight against diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's and other types of dementia. But there is plenty of evidence that we will be able to handle these challenges by using the very technologies that digitalization is giving us. Big data, for example, is not the same as the "big brother" in Orwell's 1984. No, big data gives us the opportunity to do important things such as making enormous progress in medical research. To mention just one example, last summer, Deutsche Telekom, working in cooperation with researchers and scientists, published the computer game "Sea Hero Quest." Sea Hero Quest is a game that tests players' spatial navigation ability. The data it is generating are being provided – absolutely anonymously – to dementia research, where the data are of enormous value. What is more, the volume of data produced by the over 2 million players who have played Sea Hero Quest to date is so great that a research team, using conventional experimental research methods, would need hundreds of years to obtain it. The medical field, in particular, abounds with such examples. That is why I prefer to speak of "smart data" instead of "big data."
It thus would be wrong to suppose that the visions the science fiction authors have presented to us at "FutuRead" are inevitable for our society. No, in these cases, fiction is indeed fiction. But we should take the visions seriously, as warnings, and do everything we can to ensure they do not become a reality. That is the very reason why Deutsche Telekom has been looking at these issues and the questions that arise in connection with digitalization. We consider it part of our digital responsibility (for more information, go to http://www.telekom.com/digital-responsibility) to identify the pertinent opportunities and the risks and to draw suitable conclusions.
What happens when machines eliminate jobs? Would it make sense to provide an unconditional basic income that would be financed via the profits of fully automated companies? Wouldn't that give many people the chance to become active in some entrepreneurial, artistic or creative way? Could machines simply become our new colleagues, fellow workers who free us of annoying, burdensome and dangerous tasks and give us more freedom for socially beneficial pursuits such as caregiving, education or medicine? In comparison to work today, I think that the work of the future will be both easier and much more fulfilling. Because we will have more freedom in connection with it. What is more, while some jobs will be eliminated, new jobs will emerge. Deutsche Telekom, for example, recently created a new department for cyber security. And it introduced a further training program that qualifies people to become "cyber security professionals." This is because online security is one of the most critical issues with regard to the success of digitalization and to the brightness of our future. And, by the way, because online security also plays an important role in the development of the new network technology 5G, in which Deutsche Telekom is playing a central role.
I thus urge that we be optimistic, in spite of all the risks that digitalization can bring. People are adaptable. And we have also succeeded in handling technological leaps very well in the past. We are not a plaything of digitalization; we are that which we want to be. Interestingly enough, Star Trek did not simply focus on new technologies. It also described, in very optimistic ways, how people can overcome their differences in order to do good and great things together. I am convinced that digitalization is not a question of fate. It is a task in which we are called on to take an active, shaping role.
We thus need to ensure that the negative future scenarios of the science fiction authors do not become reality. And we need to develop utopias that we can put into action, practically. For the benefit of all of us. Such actions include providing networks that enable access, everywhere and at all times. They also include developing smart-data-based applications that benefit society. So we shouldn't be blocking smart data! They of course also include respecting the privacy of each individual. And they also involve thinking about how machines can complement and support us, rather than replacing us. In short, this is about a society that aims at creating benefits for people. We need to develop new things. Bravely and optimistically. Not faintheartedly. But fearlessly. And the good thing is that we do not have to remain passive readers in the face of digitalization. All of us can become the authors of a success story in Europe.