Our Vision for the Future - An essay by Hans Georg Näder
We’re standing on the threshold of a new age in which digitalization, the rapid rise of artificial intelligence and the triumphant advance of robots promise a new long wave of growth and prosperity, while simultaneously raising the fundamental question of what constitutes the essential core of human existence. Will man remain human or will he be enslaved by the machines, or will he possibly mutate into a new Nietzschean Übermensch, who thanks to technical modifications and continual upgrades of his physical and cognitive capabilities, will ultimately raise himself above the evolution of nature – or as we Christians say, above creation? For Ottobock and my family these questions can be answered – at least in general terms. Our set of values and ethical coordination system is clear and simple. Our corporate vision is to get as close as possible to the human model of nature. We deploy all the technological possibilities in order to improve the human body and to model it as closely on nature as possible. However, the more we attempt to copy nature, the more we realize how complex it actually is. The more secrets of nature that we decode, the more speechless we become in the face of the wonder of divine creation. That’s why over the last 100 years we’ve learned humility and respect for creation. We know that not everything that is technologically possible is also ethically defensible.
Unfortunately politics is leaving us entrepreneurs, scientists and company founders alone with the decisive questions of our future. The public discourse on questions of artificial intelligence and robotics is hopelessly lagging behind the rapid technological developments. does Europe even have a chance to compete technologically with the militaristically motivated innovation driver USA and the authoritarian Asian states such as China with their consequent propensity for unscrupulousness? Is it not time for a European coordinated project with huge financial resources to finally establish its own cluster, linking together basic research, application research, industry and start-ups?
In the meantime, many people no longer give Europe a chance in the struggle over technological leadership. However, we shouldn’t prematurely admit defeat in this area. We can continue to live with damaged streets and airports that are never completed, but we mustn’t fall behind when it comes to artificial intelligence. Shouldn’t we reflect positively on the strengths of the European economic model here? Social balance, a democratic disposition, respect for people and basic rights are the ideal preconditions for Europe to forge its own path in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics – at least to conquer a small niche while the superpowers are caught in a clinch fighting over digital world dominance.
With respect to artificial intelligence and robotics the central question is: will they serve us or dominate us? This discussion on new technologies cannot be restricted to technical issues. It’s also a political and cultural debate on the question of how we humans want to live and work in the future. That is why politics and society must answer the following questions: can one achieve a social agreement that machines will not dominate humans? Can one teach machines human empathy, a sense of responsibility and social behavior like little children, or irreversibly program them with a respect for the inviolable dignity of humans? How far should the technological enhancement of the human body go? What humanistic limits do capitalism’s neoliberal optimization and control pretensions have? Is it permissible to completely dissolve the boundaries of the body and to economically exploit it? These fundamental questions are neither raised, let alone answered.
The permanent failure of politics and society to answer these questions has resulted in the extreme popularity of the dystopian fantasies of Hollywood films on the one side, and the sharp critique of the uncontrolled use of artificial intelligence, for example that from Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, on the other. It is high time to clarify these issues, before justified fears harden into technophobic prejudices which will subsequently block progress. We need a social and political discourse on the ethical limits of the new technologies. As part of this dialogue, and distinct from the USA and Asia, we should reflect on the virtues of the Enlightenment. As it is, civil society’s capacity for discourse in the majority of European states is already being threatened by the erosion of democratic processes. If we succeed in organizing a serious and productive discourse around these existential questions, then this will imbue all institutions with new energy and legitimacy.
I appeal for an independent European narrative: between the uncritical and sectarian-euphoric faith in progress of Asia and the USA on the one side, and the dystopian fantasies of the overpowering of humans by machines on the other, we need a new and by all means optimistic narrative of the development of Homo sapiens into Homo technologicus.
You can find the entire article in the book Futuring Human Mobility. The trade edition will be published in Spring 2019.