“Technology forces us to reflect on ourselves”

Interview with Dr. Albrecht Fritzsche about digital transformation from a philosophical point of view

The digitalization of our economy and society is a dominant feature of modern life. As a research institute, we help to create the technological basis for digital transformation, especially within the context of our guiding theme “Cognitive Sensor Technologies”. Albrecht Fritzsche works at the Chair for Information Systems I at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, which is a close partner of the Fraunhofer Institute. As a mathematician, he has a profound insider’s view of digitalization. However, as a philosopher, he also has his eye on the bigger picture – and we were keen to learn more about it. We met with him to discuss his assessments of how digital transformation will change our society, how humans and technology will interact in the future, and what responsibility we carry for these developments.

Dr. Fritzsche, digitalization triggers a range of emotions in society. Some people fear that jobs will be lost or that our privacy will increasingly be eroded. Where do these fears come from, can you understand them, and how can they be tackled?

Every important social development should be the subject of vigorous debate. After all, that’s the good thing about a democracy: instead of simply putting up with things, we examine them critically. What strikes me, however, is that the people who are actually affected by digitalization express far fewer concerns about it than the media or other stakeholders. When I see people in the street using their smartphones, I get the impression that they are very uninhibited when it comes to digitalization. In other words, I have no idea whether the issue really affects people or whether we are simply having an intellectual conversation with ourselves about it and then projecting that onto the people in the street.

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Dr. Dr. Albrecht Fritzsche is a graduate in mathematics.

Are we, as a society, simply reacting very emotionally to this emerging trend?

Actually, we are reacting surprisingly little, if you ask me. I had expected people to struggle with it, as there are some really radical changes underway. I think we are only gradually starting to grasp how much the world is changing, or how old structures are breaking down and being replaced by new ones. Little by little, we’re realizing what all of this actually entails in terms of decisions, how our lives are changing, and what new opportunities are emerging – in my view, this is barely reflected in public opinion.

One possible explanation is that this new technology feels somehow natural. It’s something we weren’t familiar with before. The best example is mobile phones, which have become an essential part of everyday life in the space of just a few years. And that’s the fascinating part: the new technology fits into our lives so well and no longer triggers major defensive reactions.

Important Terms a Glance: Digitization, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and the Knowledge Society

Technology meets some of our fundamental needs

 

So, has technology become more human-friendly? Or have we humans become more technology-friendly?

Technology is still technology, but the way that it fits into human life has changed considerably. In the past, we dealt with technology primarily in our working environment, in industry, on the way to work, and in the home. We had less to do with technology in our private lives. All of these devices were, in a way, foreign bodies to us. In the case of mobile phones, the opposite is true. Now, they are a key part of our private lives. They’re our constant companions, and we don’t think twice about using them. Technology therefore meets some of our fundamental needs: it turns us into social beings. We can be connected with the people we like and those we want to keep up to date with. And so, for many people, this advantage of using a smartphone wins over, even though we know we’re surrendering our personal data.

 

So, technology is simply responding to our needs?

Yes. In principle, that’s what technology has always done. Take the car, for example, or the invention of the printing press. Technology has always solved specific problems and delivered added value. This goes right back to its very early forms: after all, clothes and a roof over your head are also types of technology. In fact, the term originally referred to precisely such activities. Through technology, we have always sought to bring about improvements for humankind. However, we are now seeing another aspect emerging; specifically, we can no longer do without technology.

 

Let’s look at a different aspect. What will happen if we retrieve more and more knowledge from databases and are less dependent on knowing things for ourselves? Will we lose certain cognitive abilities and gain others?

When it comes to questions like this, the philosopher’s mind naturally jumps to a dialog by Plato known as the “Phaedrus”, in which the same problem was discussed with regard to the introduction of writing in Ancient Egypt. Writing is, of course, another form of information technology, and could be subject to the same criticism: that it will cause us to lose our capacity for memory because we can record events in writing. These concerns are therefore not new: technology causes us to expand certain abilities at the same time as we lose others. And this dynamic is something we see time and time again throughout the history of human cultures. It was the same with the printing press, and with other technologies: we’ve always experienced some form of loss when new things enter our society. And therein lies a fundamental point: as soon as I establish new opportunities and decide to grasp them, I lose access to other pathways of development that would still have been open. In other words, to come back to the specific question: of course our cognitive abilities will change as a result. And, in that respect, we have a lot of work to do in shaping the future; we must consider the direction in which we actually want to move in.

How does digitalization influence the way we think and act?

 

And, in specific terms, how does digitalization influence the way we think and act? Will we think in algorithms in the future, or will things that can’t be portrayed digitally simply fade into the background?

I tend toward the view that technical devices visualize what has already developed in our minds. For example, the job of early computers was to perform calculations that were previously done on paper. Airplanes were developed based on the way birds fly. In other words, the underlying concepts already existed and were then reproduced in the form of machines. Then, when we see them in front of our own eyes, we suddenly realize their potential.

That’s the really exciting thing about the whole process of development: technology demonstrates what’s already going on in our heads – what our wishes really mean if they are fulfilled. It’s possible that many people are currently experiencing this with the smartphone. We’re now continuously connected and able to communicate with one another. Although that’s very positive, we’re also seeing that it doesn’t necessarily create intimacy; we can still feel very lonely a lot of the time – and it seems that we only reach this kind of insight when technology actually fulfils our wishes.

So, technology shows us who we are and what makes us tick?

Yes, technology constantly forces us to reflect on ourselves. Of course, as a society, we have certain ideas about the nature of humankind. This is still heavily influenced by the Enlightenment: the responsible citizen takes their destiny into their own hands and individually realizes their potential through their actions. The more technology enables us to act, however, the more it frees us from limitations, and the more it emerges that, perhaps, the things that matter are nothing like what we once thought. We have to face up to this and must always come back to this perspective when considering what we want and how to implement it.

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Does that also apply to the current process of digitalization in the economy?

Digitalization is associated with some natural preconceptions. We already have some points of reference for how we imagine the future, and we are working toward these with new developments.

However, time and time again, new directions suddenly open up along the way that we couldn’t have anticipated beforehand. This is what happened with the internet. It started out as an attempt to allow virtual communication between individual scientists, who could also use it to work with and on shared databases. Then, along the way, we realized that it also gave rise to a completely different set of opportunities – totally different ways of collaborating, exchanging ideas, and, indeed, interacting with society.

This is still going on today: we have specific objectives in mind – the idea of a digitalized factory has been around for a long time – and we are moving toward them step by step. Then, along the way, we are presented with numerous other possibilities that we hadn’t even thought of before. Perhaps, then, the key to the economy’s digital transformation is no longer the factory itself, but rather the fact that digitalization allows us to interact with suppliers and customers in a totally different way at every step of the supply chain.

The role of artificial intelligence and the question of human responsibility

 

Now, let’s turn to the role of artificial intelligence: how does it influence this development and what is its impact on humankind?

Artificial intelligence, as we are experiencing it today, is intelligent precisely because it is more than just an instrumental technology. It anticipates, so to speak, what it thinks, and what actually needs to be done. It complements the human’s actions with decisions, drawing on the experiences of other individuals or on larger samples that have been recorded in databases. Amazon and Facebook are already doing this on a constant basis. They automatically show us individually selected content that the systems assume we want to see. However, the mechanism responsible for this operates out of the public eye, which saves us a great deal of work but also limits the amount that we can learn about ourselves using the technology. What we do with the technology no longer provides us with results that we can trawl through to learn more about ourselves. Rather, it predetermines what we should learn: what is good for us, how we should behave, and who is best suited to us. This saves us a great deal of bother, but also deprives us of the opportunity to develop.

That’s precisely why it is always important to reflect on the situation critically and to consider whether it is really necessary or whether our priorities have completely changed – and, as the case may be, to continually shape the role technology plays in our lives.

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This raises the question of human responsibility. What needs to happen so that we can deal with these developments responsibly and autonomously in the future?

Engineering associations have considered this question for a long time and have committed themselves to taking responsibility for technological development. There are documents that describe precisely what this means for engineers in practice, and these can serve as a basis. However, it’s also vital to understand that we can’t detach our own existence from the things we develop. The technology we bring into the world helps us, but at the same time also defines us as those that use and operate technology of this kind. Until now, we have separated ourselves from it as humans and said: “I am still such and such, and the technology allows me to do this or that.” It is precisely this attitude that cannot be maintained in the future.

Quite the opposite is true: the technology we use says a great deal about us – as users and as developers – and it is crucial that we face up to this fact in the future and say: “This truly belongs to me and goes some way to defining who I am and, of course, who we are as a society.” It’s often difficult for us to admit that. The two attitudes ­– either “I control this” or “this controls me” – are no longer effective. Instead, we must adopt an attitude that says: “I am constantly learning at the same time.” We can wave goodbye to the notion that we can predict or know everything already. Instead, it’s important to say: “When it comes to new solutions, I know that I always have to feel my way slowly – and, through this process of exploration, I am continually learning new things at the same time. In my view, this attitude represents the type of responsibility that we’re talking about here and that is so necessary. Both for the man or woman on the street as well as for those like us in the role of expert: increasingly, experts must regard themselves as people who are actually in a process of continual learning. Being a true expert means always being aware of what you don’t know, and realizing that you must continually reposition yourself with respect to what you’re actually doing.

 

Dr. Fritzsche, thank you for talking to us today.

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