Digitalization is profoundly transforming the world, our society and economic system. The new technologies come along with other upheavals like geo-strategic and demographic shifts. There is no stopping of this development. We must face up to it and create viable conditions to lead the digital change.
The story of the sorcerer’s apprentice who cannot hold sway over the spirits he has called is one of the great mythological tales of western culture. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote this ballade on the eve of the Industrial Revolution – at a time, when no one could foresee that some day there would actually be machines able to operate autonomously and even elude human control. At the time, things like this only happened in fairly tales. In view of the progress that digitization and, above all, exponential technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), or distributed ledger technologies (DLT) are making, the sorcerer’s apprentice appears rather visionary.
The fact of the matter is that digital technology is about to change our lives rapidly and irreversibly. We find ourselves in the transition from the industrial to a digital revolution. The technological transformation is central to a huge upheaval that the world is currently going through.
For one thing, there is a complete realignment of the geopolitical situation that can be observed. Standing above all is a geo-strategic struggle between China and the United States. In the context, Russia should not be forgotten, nor should rising India. Europe is falling behind. Germany has not been able to improve its position in recent times. The struggle is about predominance in new technologies. The foundation of the economic and power structures of tomorrow is laid today. Digitization is one of not the single most important driver of innovation and changes of economy and society.
For another, we are witnessing two contrary demographic developments: in India and Africa, populations are exploding, with the average age being less than thirty years. At the same time, Western societies continue to age. There is an increasing shortage of labor, particularly young skilled labor that the West urgently needs for the functioning of its economic and social system. To cope with the problems entailed, new possibilities must be made accessible which will also have to be based on the new technologies.
Moreover, digital technologies will also play a central role in dealing with ecological problems like the consequences of climate change or the battle against hunger by facilitating, for example, ecologically sustainable increases of crop production and the fight against air pollution or deforestation.
Speaking of digitization, most people would probably think of the Internet or robots. However, digitization is a lot more than that. The technologies that will most influence our lives and work already in the near future mainly include, aside from self-driving cars, virtual reality, chatbots, language recognition, and „digital medicine“. These systems are able to learn progressively and respond independently to external conditions. Machine learning, distributed ledger technologies, or the Internet of Things are being integrated more and more in everyday gadgets and applications. And the Industry 4.0 is beginning to take shape. In addition, there is an increasing fusion of man and machine: so-called „brain gates“ have long been tested in humans in research and are widely used in regenerative medicine. Many experts think AI might even have greater significance than the taming of fire or the utilization of electricity – similar only to the invention of the steam locomotive.
Today digitization has reached almost all spheres of life. Job profiles are changing, jobs will fall away, new jobs will be created. Corporations will have to find and develop new business models. Technology will bring forth radical innovations and shatter the economy in a disruptive way. The development, however, brings numerous problems and dangers with it: there is mass surveillance everywhere today, whether your smartphone is on or not, or cybercrime, which also the recently passed Stephan Hawking has cautioned against.
Utility & hazard
Every fundamental innovation – like the knife – contains in itself both utility and hazard. It is always a matter of making a choice of how to use an innovation. Nobody wants to have a world without a knife knowing that it can be turned into a murder weapon. The same is true of the self-driving car. It is therefore inevitable not only to explore and solve technological problems but also to deal with the legal, social, judicial, and ethical issues involved. The Facebook scandal, which popped up last year, clearly shows that the digital development needs to be based on new rules.
No one has a readymade answer to the challenges brought by the digital upheaval. We are constantly in a work-in-progress status. And progress is coming, wether everybody embraces it or not, wether it instills fears or salvation.
As numerous examples from history show, silly trying to prohibit a development does not lead to anything. Physical attacks against machines do not make sense either. However understandable the social causes of riots may be, they nevertheless cannot stop technological change. And present-day destructive prevention strategy would certainly be more difficult, since digital inventions are mostly invisible.
The digital transformation is happening. It does therefore make sense to try and shape the course of change and create suitable conditions for it. What will be decisive is how society, the economy, the social and, most importantly, the educational system can respond to this as proactively as possible. Both from a corporate and an individual point of view, flexibility will be imperative in order to make use of new possibilities and cope with challenges. The difficulty is that at the moment one can, at best, only guess what developments ally occur that will again induce fundamental changes.
Currently, Europe and Germany are lagging behind when it comes to digital technologies. Globally, the U.S. and China stake out the terrain. We should not underestimate India, though, which is making giant strides to catch up, as the example of the tech metropolis Bangalore shows. Europe, by contrast, appears caught up in its old industries: here we argue over Diesel, while China sets out to become a world power of e-motility and AI. The European countries will have to catch up quickly in order not to be left behind in the competition for data-based technologies.
Education and labor qualification play another major key role. Germany must make its people as fit for the future as possible. At present, there is a shortage of high-qualification labor, which is not only due to today’s lower birth rates. The existing educational system in fact is no longer fit for the digital era. If people are not made fit for the future, the worst apprehensions will come true and the digital divide will even grow bigger in society.
The contents of teaching will have to change: apart from in-depth knowledge of special subjects, additional qualifications will have to be imparted to prepare everyone in the best possible way for new technologies and future challenges.
We need to foster an interdisciplinary understanding that involves social, legal, and ethical aspects, to formulate some new thinking about the distribution of labor, allocation of resources, and sharing of wealth. We have to foster the discourse and the production of new tech innovations.
Since „Back now, broom, into the closet!“ Be thou as thou wert before!“ – like with Goethe – is a highly unlikely option. And an „old master“ who comes to rescue us from our action is nowhere in sight.