Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Birth of a Digital God

By Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich/TU Delft/Complexity Science Hub Vienna)

It is finally happening! At the annual meeting of the Swiss Civil Society Association on November 11, Professor Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht gave a memorable speech – a “mass,” as some listeners thought. It was not just about trying to create a super-intelligent system with consciousness. No, the goal was now to create a God-like being with superhuman knowledge and abilities to guide our human destiny. However, there is the risk that this God might turn against humanity, he continued, even though it was man-made. The statement that this should free us from Biblical sin was even more surprising.

Gumbrecht is not the first one to raise the subject of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as God. Just recently, the Guardian, under the title ”Deus Ex Machina,” announced that ex-Google collaborator Levandowski wanted to register Artificial Intelligence as religion.[1] Shortly later, Google announced its latest triumph. They had succeeded in building an AI system that learned to win the strategy game “Go” by itself – so well in fact that it could beat the world champion. At the same time, it was suggested that one had now found an approach that would sooner or later solve all the problems of humanity, including those that surpassed our intellectual capacities.

Just a few days later, Spiegel Online wrote: ”God does not need any teachers.”[2] Already in 2013, I discussed the opportunities and risks of the information age in an article entitled “Google as God?”[3] Furthermore, in 2015, the Digital Manifesto asked: “Let us suppose there was a super-intelligent machine with God-like knowledge and superhuman abilities: would we follow its instructions?”[4]

Some readers found the question ridiculous at that time. Not anymore! Because search engines and intelligence services know almost everything about us. We have been living in a Big Brother world already for some time. George Orwell's dystopian novel “1984,” written in 1948, was meant as a warning. But more and more often we get the feeling the bestseller was actually used as an instruction manual.

Today’s data-driven world has two main principles: “Data is the new oil” and “Knowledge is power.” Little by little, and almost unnoticed, this has created a fundamentally new society. There is a new currency, “data,” which replaces classical money. There is a new economic system: the “attention economy,” where our attention is sold by auctions in split seconds. In addition, the companies of “surveillance capitalism” are measuring our behavior, our personality and our lives in ever more detail. In times of free services, we have become a product ourselves. Last but not least, the principle “code is law” has established a new legal system, which bypasses our parliament.

Are we in danger of losing our liberties, human rights and participation step by step, almost imperceptibly? Are we giving up on things that are important to us, just because we fear terrorism, climate change, and cybercrime? Are self-determined citizens in a danger to be turned into remotely controlled subjects?

In fact, this isn’t just fantasy! China is already testing a Citizen Score,[5] i.e. every citizen is rated, has a certain number of points. Minus points will punish those who do not pay for their loan immediately, cross the street during a red light, have the “wrong” friends or neighbors, or reads critical news. The Citizen Score then determines the job opportunities, loan conditions, access to services, and mobility restrictions. Great Britain seems to go even a step further. It measures its citizens including the videos they watch and the music they hear. The system is called “Karma Police.”[6] So, will it punish thought crimes, you may ask? Or is “Karma Police” a kind of “Judgment Day” waiting to come down on us any time?

Do we have to accept this? Computers make better decisions, it is often said. In fact, computers have been the better chess players for years. In many areas they are better workers. They don’t get tired, do not complain, do not go on vacation, and do not have to pay taxes and contributions to social security. Soon they will be better drivers. They diagnose cancer better than physicians and answer questions better than people – at least those that have already an answer.

When will robots become our judge and hangman? When will they start to “fix the overpopulation problem”? (Autonomous killer robots with face recognition probably exist already or could at least exist soon – see the recent movies on slaughterbots and robot swarms.[7]) When will robots replace us? Not just our work… A newspaper article recently suggested that the descendants of humans will be machines.[8] In other words, humanity will be replaced by robots. Is this really our human destiny? Should we build a future for robots or for humans? Isn’t it time to wake up from the transhumanist dream?[9]

Back to the initial question: Is Google creating a digital God? With its Loon project, the company at least tries to be omnipresent. With its search engine, language assistants and measurement sensors in our rooms, Google wants to be omniscient. While the company is not yet omnipotent, it is at least answering 95 percent of our questions, and with personalized information, Google is increasingly steering our thinking and actions. Furthermore, the Calico project is also trying to make people immortal. Therefore, in an overpopulated world, would Google be the judge over life and death?

Whatever, someone recently suggested an AI God would soon write a new Bible.[10] So would he (or she) set the rules we would have to live by? Do we soon have to worship an AI algorithm and submit ourselves to it? No question, some already seem to dream of a digital God who will guide our human destiny. What for some is the invention of God through human ingenuity, however, must be the ultimate blasphemy for Christians – in some sense the rise of the Antichrist.

Whatever one may think about all this, the phrase “knowledge is power” has certainly blown some people’s minds. Google, IBM and Facebook are said to be working on a new operating system for society.[11] Democracy is defamed as outdated technology.[12] They want to engineer paradise on Earth – a smarter planet where everything will be automated. So far, however, the plan did not really work out.[13] The world’s cities with the highest quality of life are located everywhere, but in the leading IT nations. And even in the Silicon Valley, the heart of the digital revolution, and other IT hotspots, experts start to worry…

Elon Musk, for example, fears that Artificial Intelligence could become the greatest threat to humanity. Even Bill Gates had to admit that he was in the camp of those who were worried about superintelligence. The famous physicist Stephen Hawking warned that humans would not be able to compete with the development of Artificial Intelligence. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak agreed: “Computers are going to take over from humans, no question,” he said, but: “Will we be the gods? Will be the family pets? Or will be ants that get stepped on? I don’t know…”[14] Jürgen Schmidhuber, German AI pioneer, believes to know – from a robot’s perspective, we will be like cats.[15]

Of course, the worry that technology could turn against us is already old. Besides George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” warned us of the danger of rising totalitarianism. Suddenly people also remember “The Machine Stops” by Edward Morgan Forster in 1909 (!). More recent books are Dave Egger’s “The Circle,” “Homo Deus” by Yuval Noah Harari and Joel Cachelin’s “Internet God.” If you like science fiction, you might love “QualityLand” by Marc-Uwe Kling or “iGod” by Willemijn Dicke.

A question, which not only science fiction lovers should ask, is: What future do we want to live in? Never before have we had a better chance to build a world of our liking. But for this we have to take the future into our hands. It’s high time to overcome our self-imposed digital immaturity. To free ourselves from the digital shackles, digital literacy and enlightenment are needed. So far, we are living in a market-conform democracy, where the markets are driven by technology. Instead, we should build an economy that serves to reach the goals of people and society. Technology should be a means of achieving this. This requires a fundamental redesign of our monetary, financial and economic system based on the principle of value-sensitive design. In “The Globalist,” I have recently outlined how this could be done.[16] Maybe you have your own ideas of how to use Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. But in any case, a better future is possible! Let’s demand this better future! Let’s co-create it! What are we waiting for?

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/28/artificial-intelligence-god-anthony-levandowski
[2] http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/technik/kuenstliche-intelligenz-gott-braucht-keine-lehrmeister-kolumne-a-1175130.html
[3] https://www.nzz.ch/google-als-gott-1.18049950
[4] http://www.spektrum.de/thema/das-digital-manifest/1375924, English translation: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/will-democracy-survive-big-data-and-artificial-intelligence/
[5] https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21711902-worrying-implications-its-social-credit-project-china-invents-digital-totalitarian
[6] https://theintercept.com/2015/09/25/gchq-radio-porn-spies-track-web-users-online-identities/
[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CO6M2HsoIA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGAk5gRD-t0
[8] https://www.nzz.ch/feuilleton/unsere-nachfahren-werden-maschinen-sein-ld.1322780
[9] https://www.nzz.ch/meinung/kommentare/die-gefaehrliche-utopie-der-selbstoptimierung-wider-den-transhumanismus-ld.1301315, http://privacysurgeon.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Human-manifesto_26_short-1.pdf
[10] https://venturebeat.com/2017/10/02/an-ai-god-will-emerge-by-2042-and-write-its-own-bible-will-you-worship-it/
[11] http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/medien/google-gruendet-in-den-usa-government-innovaton-lab-13852715.html, https://www.pcworld.com/article/3031137/forget-trump-and-clinton-ibms-watson-is-running-for-president.html, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/17/facebook-ceo-mark-zuckerberg-rule-world-president, http://theconversation.com/if-facebook-ruled-the-world-mark-zuckerbergs-vision-of-a-digital-future-73459
12] Hencken, Randolph. 2014. In: Mikrogesellschaften. Hat die Demokratie ausgedient? Capriccio. Video, veröffentlicht am 15.5.2014. Autor: Joachim Gaertner. München: Bayerischer Rundfunk.
[13] https://www.wiltonpark.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/WP1449-Report.pdf
[14] https://www.computerworld.com/article/2901679/steve-wozniak-on-ai-will-we-be-pets-or-mere-ants-to-be-squashed-our-robot-overlords.html
[15] http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/ueberwindung-des-menschen-durch-selbstlernende-maschinen-15309705.html
[16] https://www.theglobalist.com/author/dirk-helbing/

Saturday, 30 December 2017

A PARTICIPATORY SYSTEM TO MONITOR AND FIGHT THE FLU: Influenza season is in full swing and you can help to fight it!

A team of researchers led by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the University of Geneva launched Grippenet.ch, a webpage and mobile App based platform aimed at providing participatory monitoring of Influenza. Your participation can contribute to enhance this system for better Flu monitoring and to develop novel approaches to prevent epidemics.

The Flu is a major public health issue, resulting in increased medical care consumption, absenteeism and mortality, to name a few. Along with several partners, researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) and the University of Geneva (UNIGE) developed and deployed Grippenet.ch, the Swiss component of a European initiative for participatory influenza surveillance called Influenzanet. Through this system, data on Flu is contributed directly by citizen participants, contrary to Sentinella, the epidemiological surveillance system active in Switzerland since 1986, where reports of Flu are reported by health practitioners.

Results show that Grippenet.ch could prove faster, more flexible, and a useful supplemental tool for early detection and monitoring of infectious outbreaks. The Swiss researchers and their collaborators have also released a mobile App, which allows participants to contribute measurements made by their mobile phone sensors. This data could allow scientists to better understand the transmission of the virus and to leverage information technologies and human behavioral responses to help contain epidemics.

Each year in Switzerland, the Flu causes anywhere from 112,000 to 275,000 medical consultations, as well as an excess of mortality among the elderly and additional 97 million francs costs to the health care system. Absenteeism-related costs amount to an additional 200 million francs. All these reasons and more motivated the start of the Grippenet project in December 2016, allowing the monitoring of influenza epidemics though the direct action of Swiss citizens and residents. Based on the European Influenzanet platform that started in 2003 in the Netherlands and Belgium, Grippenet.ch was implemented and launched in Switzerland by the Professorship of Computational Social Sciences (ETHZ), the Institute of Global Health of the Faculty of Medicine at UNIGE, the Digital Epidemiology Laboratory (EPFL, Lausanne) and the National Reference Center for Influenza (HUG, Geneva).

"The principle is very simple. After an anonymous and free registration on grippenet.ch, participants receive a short survey on a weekly basis, enquiring about whether they suffered from potentially Flu-related symptoms" explains Aude Richard, Coordinator for the French speaking Grippenet platform at the Institute of Global Health at the Faculty of Medicine of UNIGE. Throughout the winter of 2016-2017, 342 Swiss residents informed researchers about the presence or absence of Flu-like symptoms in themselves and in those living with them.

An interactive information platform

The website is also an educational and information platform. "The more aware and informed people are, the better they can protect themselves," says Dirk Helbing, Professor of Computational Social Science at the ETH Zurich. "I am thinking, for example, about measures such as vaccination, avoiding intense contact with crowds, and better hand hygiene.” Contributors can view a map of Switzerland to see the Flu levels reported by the community in different cantons, including their own, as well as other statistics on Flu incidence. They can also access more information about influenza and preventive measures.

Predicting and containing Influenza through social-sensing

The Grippenet.ch team just launched a new Android App (currently in German and English but soon appearing in French also), initiating a research study with the aim to develop cutting-edge Machine Learning models to predict Flu exposure through sensor data. Flu transmission is driven by human mobility and contact patterns, which can be inferred using measurements made through mobile phone sensors. Furthermore, this is done in a privacy preserving fashion by aggregating and anonymizing the data that is shared with researchers. “If enough people contribute their measurements, we might be able to build a system that learns to make accurate predictions of who is at high risk of being sick, using regularities in the data. This requires user trust and the utmost respect for their privacy”, explains Olivia Woolley, who runs the Grippenet.ch team at ETH Zurich. “Our ultimate goal is to create a tool that gives people accurate information about their exposure to the Flu so that they have the power to take smart actions to protect themselves and avoid spreading the Flu to others.” The App and study are developped in collaboration with the the Computational Epidemiology Laboratory (ISI, Turin), and the center for Embeded Intelligence (DFKI, Germany) and partially funded by the European Communities H2020 Program, namely the project called CIMPLEX: Bringing CItizens, Models and Data together in Participatory, Interactive SociaL EXploratories (http://www.cimplex-project.eu).

Grippenet.ch, a complement to the Sentinella system

In Switzerland, the Sentinella epidemiological surveillance system has been monitoring Flu outbreaks since 1986. Based on weekly reports by doctors, it provides a continuous observation of influenza viruses circulating in the country. The Sentinella platform works in the monitoring of many acute communicable diseases and is used for research in general medicine. Since its start, 150 to 250 GPs participate voluntarily in the Sentinella system each year.

If Sentinella is a well-established and effective system, then why was grippenet.ch developed? "Unlike the Sentinella network that relies on medical practitioners for the declaration of cases of Flu, grippenet.ch gets its data directly from the population, explains Antoine Flahault, Director of the Institute of Global Health at the Faculty of Medicine of UNIGE. This provides us with a monitoring system that could potentially be faster and more flexible than Sentinella, and allows for direct international comparisons of Flu epidemics, since the data is directly comparable with other European countries. In addition, not everyone who gets the Flu sees a doctor, which is why Grippenet.ch is complementary to Sentinella. "The comparison of the two systems gives us important insights for the planning and prioritization of the public health epidemic response, allowing us, for example, to estimate the percentage of people who do not consult a doctor in case of Flu-like symptoms", adds Antoine Flahault.

A precursor system

Thanks to demographic and geographical localization data allowing greater insight into the causes and localization of rising disease clusters, grippenet.ch could give rise to novel research on the transmission and risk factors of influenza epidemics. "Ultimately, our hope is to better prevent and control the course of the epidemic, as well as its negative consequences" explains Antoine Flahault. In the future, this precursor system could be extended to the surveillance of other diseases, including emerging diseases, providing more reactive data than current surveillance systems, thus allowing earlier action.

If you wish to help grippenet.ch by participating in the project, you can

Download the mobile app here: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=de.dfki.grippenetch.

Or use the web-based platform here: http://www.grippenet.ch/


Olivia Woolley, owoolley@ethz.ch
Dirk Helbing, dhelbing@ethz.ch
Antoine Flahault, Antoine.Flahault@unige.ch
Aude Richard, aude.richard@unige.ch
Marco Hirsch, marco.hirsch@dfki.de
Paul Lukowicz, paul.lukowicz@dfki.de