Reading time: approx. 15 min.The Age of Homo DigitalisHow will we work, think and understand our world in the years ahead?
EpilogueWhat’s coming? What will be left?
Training ourselves to continue doing these things will become increasingly important as digital progress continues to accelerate. The changes around us will happen faster and faster because the algorithms prompting these changes are getting better and better.
“We simply can’t imagine the exponential changes that await us in the future,”
While we are still mesmerized by the near future and seek to understand the full range that technological innovations offer, the distant future is already overtaking us on both sides at full speed. This does not have to be a bad thing – we must simply be aware of it.
One of the most striking characteristics on how to define Homo Digitalis? The amazement of progress and our astounding ability to adapt to it.
What we gain: A more in-depth and unique understanding of our world (or what we believe is our world)
What we lose: A shared understanding of the connections in our world (or what we believe is our world)
“When these gadgets first appeared, they were so cool. By the time people realized that the gadgets were about as cool as an electronic tag it was already too late.”British author and comedian David Mitchell on smartphones
Once ambient technology has been optimized, it will become our constant companion,” believes Albers, who goes on by saying that: “Mixed reality–a mix of real and virtual worlds–will be the norm in a few years.”
However, these developments are affecting different levels: Family members will sit down to watch TV together and each be able to view a program that suits their own tastes on their own screen. The good news is, in the future each person can watch exactly what they like. On a less positive note, every person will see only the things they like – sooner or later, people will inevitably perceive what they see as reality. Albers warns that mixed reality could cause people “to construct an increasingly individual and isolated world that erases the need for an intersubjectively verifiable common reality.”
The risk is especially great when it comes to the crucial question regarding the power behind this technology: Who controls the intelligent assistance systems that deliver content to our screens? If mixed reality is our window to the world, algorithms become the program directors of our lives.They define what we see – and ultimately what we feel, think and do.
What we gain: Time and freedom by allowing machines to decide for us (because we learn that their decisions are often better than ours)
What we lose: The ability to make decisions independently
“For the first time in history, our environment is full of digital beings who learn faster and develop faster than we do. To date, humankind has always been an evolutionary high-achiever, but humans are now being outplayed in today’s intelligence revolution. We simply cannot compete against the learning speed of machines.”Christoph Kucklick, “Die granulare Gesellschaft” (The Granular Society)
Jan-Niklas Keltsch has studied technology management at Cambridge various years and found the lecture “utterly convincing.”
The unique thing about it was the fact that the speaker was a machine. For the first time in the debate club’s history, an AI platform gave a five-minute speech that it composed entirely independently – and executed perfectly.
“AI helps us to make much better decisions,” explains the technology expert. “In future, AI will start to propose options for decisions more often and, if we allow it, AI will make these decisions for us.”
This may sound far-fetched, but we have already experienced something similar in the past two decades: Around two billion people have lost mayor parts of the ability on how to research independently during this period. Nowadays anyone looking for information will go straight to the Google website rather than initiating their own search. Without the slightest hesitation, we now leave even the most sensitive decisions about what information is trustworthy and/or relevant to our question to the algorithms programmed by Google developers. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that we would behave any different regarding other important decisions.
What we gain: Numerous opportunities to create and fulfill different roles that we define for ourselves in quick succession
What we lose: Ourselves. Or, more precisely, what we believed to be ourselves
“Just like the printing press in its day, computers demand a new version of the human being.” Prof. Dirk Baecker, Sociologist, Witten/Herdecke University
“Yes, but only for a short period” is the unique response from author Vernor Vinge. And he is probably right (assuming that we leave the perfectly reasonable discussion of what “thinking” and “intelligence” really mean for another time). After all, the intelligence of computers grows with every new generation of data processor and sensor, while the supply of skills that we wrongly considered exclusive to humans inevitably shrinks.
Nevertheless, if algorithms eventually become smarter than us, what roles will be left for humans to perform? To date, we have considered ourselves the brightest, most conscious and most intellectual inhabitants of this planet. What roles can we retain when machines think faster than we do?
In other words: Who am I?Answering this question will be even more challenging in the future. On a positive note, we gain the freedom to live very different versions of ourselves.
Kucklick concludes that in addition to new institutions for the digital age, we need a new self-image.
What we gain: More accurate diagnoses and more effective treatments
What we lose: Full confidence in our doctor’s skills. Sovereignty over our body- and health-related data.
“Using Artificial Intelligence in the healthcare sector is technically already possible. Within two years, it will be helping us to detect disease early and choose treatment options. The benefits for patients and healthcare providers will be huge. But it will probably take 15 years before the appropriate regulatory frameworks are in place.” Jan-Niklas Keltsch, co-founder of the Deloitte Cognitive Services Platform
The result was shockingly clear: The AI platform beat the specialists by some stretch. Just seven of the 157 dermatologists analyzed the skin images more accurately than the algorithm. Although a cancer diagnosis involves far more than deciding whether something is a mole or melanoma, it’s obvious that AI could play a tremendous role in helping us to stay healthy (or get healthier) in the future.
For example, what if AI could become a type of super-physician with unlimited memory and provide access to the diagnoses, treatments and outcomes of other patients?What if every family doctor could draw on the experience of countless specialists around the world and select a treatment based on hundreds of thousands of comparable cases?
Sounds like something from a science fiction film, right? Well, in Scandinavia, a quarter of the staff at tour operator TUI wear a permanent data carrier not on their skin but under their skin. The implant is permanent and voluntary. More than 110 members of staff have had a chip implanted between their thumb and forefinger, which, as one TUI employee assures us, is “no big deal.” The size of a grain of rice, the implant does not fulfill any vital tasks – it merely serves to identify the carrier. The chipped employees use it for activities such as opening the entrance door to the office, paying in the canteen or unlocking the lock on their bicycle. But what about data privacy? From this perspective, widespread acceptance is probably still years away.
What we gain: A relaxed outlook and self-assertion
What we lose: Privacy and control over our data (or what’s left of it)
“Data protection in its current format is dead. The related assumptions are no longer correct; the categories are obsolete. The data itself has resolved the need for protection.”Christoph Kucklick, “Die granulare Gesellschaft” (The Granular Society)
The flood of data in the tracks that we leave both offline and online every day has long made data privacy obsolete.
Instead of refusing to admit defeat in this battle for privacy and data control, we need to learn to be pragmatic about total transparency. Network activist Christian Heller provides a radical example of the “post-privacy” concept by documenting his daily routine, his finances and much of his most private information in a publicly accessible wiki. Heller’s motto is that he would prefer to publish his data himself before someone else gets there first.
What we gain: Intelligent tools that take much of the boring work away from us and elevate the remaining work to a new level
What we lose: A sense of calm. Concentration. Contemplation
“Slowness becomes luxury at a time of total acceleration, and the great thing about this is we can all afford this luxury if only we trust ourselves.” Tim Leberecht, “The Business Romantic”
The impact of relinquishing some activities to computers is matched by the influence that the intelligence revolution has on the tasks that we retain. Working with digital tools as colleagues means that the attributes we require for our working lives have changed dramatically. These new qualities can be summed up with three words: responsibility, mindfulness, collaboration.
The need for collaboration is one of the most obvious features of our new working world. For example, more than 1,000 designers, authors, engineers and programmers have worked together for five years to create the computer game Grand Theft Auto V. As digital-agency founder Markus Albers explains, knowledge workers currently spend 85% of their working hours on collaborative activities, i.e. working through their emails, WhatsApp or Asana messages. “That is clearly too much because they lose the freedom for contemplation and concentration.”
Ironically, one of the most important skills for a Homo Digitalis to posess could be the ability to retain some of our analog attributes.