Creative Innovation 2019 (Ci2019)

The Automation of Society is Next: How to Survive the Digital Revolution

Friday, 13 April 2018

Dirk Helbing
ETH Zürich – Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences (GESS)


The explosion in data volumes, processing power, and Artificial Intelligence, known as the “digital revolution”, has driven our world to a dangerous point. One thing is increasingly clear: We are at a crossroads. We need to make decisions. We must re-invent our future.

After the automation of factories and the creation of self-driving cars, the automation of society is next. But there are two kinds of automation: a centralized top-down control of the world, and a distributed control approach supporting local self-organization. Using the power of today’s information systems, governments and companies like Google seem to engage in the first approach. Will they even try to build a “digital God” who knows everything and controls what we do? In fact, governments would spend billions to predict the future of our world and control its path.

Given that, every year, we produce as much data as in the entire history of humankind, can we now create a better world? The abundance of data certainly makes it possible to establish an entirely new paradigm for running our societies. Could we even build a data-driven “crystal ball” to predict the future and, given that knowledge implies power, also something like a “magic wand” to optimally rule the world? Will the digital revolution empower a “wise king” or “benevolent dictator”, maybe by means of Artificial Intelligence? In fact, we are much closer to this than you might think. But do we really need large-scale surveillance to understand and manage the increasingly complex systems we have created? Or are we running into a totalitarian nightmare?

What alternatives to master our complex world do we have? What about the principles of the “invisible hand” and the “wisdom of the crowd”, which posit that independent decisions made by many people will produce optimal societal outcomes? In the past, these principles have often failed. So, can bottom-up self-organization really work and if so, what does it take? Could technology make it work? Relying on the “Internet of Things” and complexity science, can self-organization now enable a more efficient, more innovative, more successful, more resilient, smarter and happier society?

Let us explore this now, because this would open the door to a brighter version of the digital society, based on informational self-determination, human dignity, freedom of decision-making, democratic principles, participation, and collective intelligence. It’s time to take the future in our hands!

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