„We’re constantly being manipulated“

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Which jobs are going to fade away? What should our children learn? What does the movie “Matrix” have to do with our lives even today? Telekom CEO Tim Höttges addressed these and other questions in a detailed interview with the German daily “Handelsblatt”. In doing so, he left no doubt that he considers the chances of digitization to be much bigger than the risks. Read here the third and last part of the interview.

Is the hacker attack that Deutsche Telekom has just experienced one of the downsides of the digital era?

Höttges: Let’s talk about cybercriminals. It is not just a question of hackers hunting for security gaps in the Internet, but has increasingly become an issue of organized crime, professional industrial espionage, and targeted, carefully prepared, and technologically sophisticated attacks. Cybercrime is now practically an industry in its own right.

What actually happened this week?

Höttges: The worldwide cyberattack by a bot network was intended to infect other computers, in this case routers, with malware, as unobtrusively as possible. That was not successful in our case. However, the repeated large number of attempts led to an overload for around five per cent of our routers due to a previously unknown vulnerability. Detailed descriptions can be found on our website. As a result, at the peak time around 900,000 routers did not function.

How can companies, and also consumers like us, protect ourselves against this in the future?

Höttges: Just in general? We should constantly have our eyes open for cyberattacks. Precisely because the threat is quite hard to grasp. A report on a shark attack off the Australian coast still attracts far more attention worldwide than an attack on umpteen million smartphones. We can defend ourselves. Cyber Emergency Response teams (CERTs) should be expanded within companies and integrated more closely. We have to pool our forces. Voluntary sharing of information about attacks is one element in such cooperation. It’s about jointly arming ourselves, if you’ll pardon the warlike expression. By the way, in my opinion the German Federal Office for Information Security is doing very good work here.

Do machines already have the power to manipulate us, or are the humans who program them still in charge?

Höttges: Artificial Intelligence – AI for short – is not yet superior to us, even if today’s machines learn differently from ever before, because they can evaluate far more data. With sometimes surprising results. The best example of this is the Microsoft bot that suddenly began spouting fascist slogans. This was perhaps the result of the poisonous debate on the Internet. We were bad teachers of AI. To that extent, AI is currently still mainly a bluff that does not go beyond perfect mastery of standard routines. The Watson supercomputer does not interest me because it can perform routine medical processes better than a doctor, but because in the depths of its – let’s call it: – consciousness it also stores and recognizes every last medical detail.

And voice recognition will be the next very big thing?

Höttges: I'm still struggling in my car with my voice-based assistant, who never seems to understand me. But we can also see the trend that the next generation is using voice news messages much more and also wishes to control its environment through voice. At Deutsche Telekom, we will soon be upgrading our Smart Home systems for voice recognition.

With your own technology?

Höttges: Or as partner of a different company. I wouldn't like to speculate on that. All the previous voice-based tools such as Siri, Echo, or Alexa from Amazon come from the Anglo-Saxon world. That means that just because of this linguistic barrier, we’re already light years behind. That is unfortunately symptomatic. And it’s not only Silicon Valley that has left us far behind here.

Who else?

Höttges: I’ve just been in Israel, where the start-up scene is much more dynamic as fas as AI and the Internet of Things are concerned. It's crazy. An unbelievably pragmatic high-tech scene that also attracts huge volumes of risk capital.

Do we lack this hunger?

Höttges: Yes, we quite clearly lack an appetite. When I advocate more digitization in Germany, entrepreneurs often say to me: “Okay, that’s important, but it’s something for my kids. My order books are still full.” But I’m slowly beginning to notice: Something is moving there. In the second phase of digitization, the Internet of Things, Europe is very well placed.

Is Israel the new Silicon Valley?

Höttges: Firstly, the Israelis have incredible technological skills. Secondly, they are amazingly fast and curious. Under the influence of my experiences there, I’ve just written a blog for my own employees entitled: “We don’t have time for bullshit.” Thirdly, they have constructed a community unique in the world around their military.

Is it coincidence or inevitability – that both Silicon Valley and Israel’s start-up world have their roots in the military?

Höttges: In the last analysis, the whole history of information technology is about war. The military has always been good at developing or adapting new technologies for its own purposes. And it has the budgets. But there are even more arguments for using this technology for civilian and above all for civilized purposes.

Who do you blame for the fact that there is no European Google, Facebook, or Amazon?

Höttges: Of course many other factors play a role... including the fact that U.S. companies also have a huge home market where they can reach the required size quickly. Then we also have massive language barriers in Europe. WhatsApp cost my industry 40 billion euros. It’s not as if we telecommunications companies didn’t understand at an early date the importance that this newcomer would acquire. At that point we sat down with the experts on anti-cartel law and decided quite officially to construct a common IP messenger as our answer. Thereupon there were house searches at all the companies involved. WhatsApp constructed the same project very easily ... without problems and for the entire planet, just to make things more straightforward.

Once again: The fact that Otto did not invent Amazon, Bertelsmann did not set up Facebook, or Deutsche Telekom did not create Google has very little to do with linguistic problems or anti-cartel law.

And IBM didn’t found SAP. But of course. We can learn a lo from the Americans: their radical consistency, simplicity, user-friendliness, and customer orientation. But it’s equally true that we need a single European market at long last.

... provided it offers enough jobs. Even now youth unemployment in many southern European countries is breaking all records. How fine a line will there be in the future between self-optimization and self-exploitation?

Höttges: Very fine. In a world where, thanks to total transparency, I can buy up all the talents and skills world wide at any time, I risk falling into a downward spiral.

Does that mean that the programmer in Bangladesh or Bucharest is always better than the one in Walldorf or Barcelona?

Höttges: There is total transparency over wages in any event. Knowledge and life-long training will thus be all the more important.

Here in your group headquarters in Bonn, you are also responding to the new era with architectural reconstructions... everything is to be more open and colorful. Does that help?

Höttges: Of course, that’s just one step. We had the option to construct a completely new building on another site. But then we would have cut off the roots of our own company history...

... that was also characterized by an era as a state monopolist, civil servants’ attitudes, and bureaucracy.

Höttges: Absolutely. But the long corridors and the old architecture are also part of Deutsche Telekom. So you experience the transformation to a digital future here in a far more authentic way. It’s not as clean and perfect, but that’s the way it is when you transform yourself from within. And another thing: I’m a little bit superstitious. Because whenever a company built a completely new headquarters, it suffered a commercial disaster afterwards. There are any number of examples.

Why does this happen?

Höttges: Anyone who begins to spend time thinking about prestigious buildings has already started to neglect their business.

Mr. Höttges, thank you for this interview.


Digital Responsibility

Experts discuss about chances and risks of digitization.