Is digitalisation changing our social structures and coexistence? And if so, how does this become evident?
We’re witnessing just the dawn of a new evolutionary epoch. I see in myself what comes from dealing with things digital even on a small scale. My attention span decreases. My ability to concentrate on a specific task wanes. I used to spend hours totally immersed in a novel. Today, when my smartphone is within reach, it’s easier to get distracted and I’m always looking for references and sources. But I don’t think this portends the downfall of the Western world. Change per se is neither good nor bad.
Man versus machine: who wins?
Cultural pessimism is not my thing. But technology does have the fundamental potential to spawn a dystopian future. It’s important to keep an eye on that potential as well as on the bigger issues. Will constantly evolving technology reduce or increase inequality? Does it serve only the wealthy, or everyone? Technological achievements may seem harmless in democracies, but what effect do they have in authoritarian regimes and dictatorships? For instance, I’m concerned about the trend in China, where the transparent citizen has almost become a reality.
Where are we still superior to robots, and how long will it stay that way?
I think a distinction has to be made here. Artificial intelligence as we know it today is confined to individual skills such as autonomous driving, playing Go or doing everyday tasks. We’re still a long way from the kind of multipurpose artificial intelligence that finds creative solutions for a wide array of tasks, like we humans can. I’m also not sure whether multipurpose AI would be interesting at all from an economic point of view, or whether machines that perform exactly one task – and do it extremely well – make more economic sense.
And what does the development of AI mean for interpersonal communication?
Already today, there are applications we can’t trust anymore: bots that run automated scripts in the background, photo manipulations, and video interviews that never took place – just to name a few examples of digital hocus pocus. At some point, we probably won’t even care whether a real person is speaking to us or instead if it’s a robot equipped with oodles of self-confidence, a cool voice and Einsteinian intelligence.
Which communication paths do you prefer personally?
I still prefer face-to-face conversations where I can look the other person in the eye. I use emails intensively, but I’m also aware of the downsides. It’s far too easy, and the result is a flooded inbox. I don’t particularly like telephoning, but Skype is wonderful. I use it to keep in touch with my brother, who lives far away.
Many of us are always online and constantly available. How important are offline oases for you?
They’re a must – especially since the lures of the digital world harbour a certain potential for addiction. I already mentioned that I use my own app as a preventative measure. The mere fact that we yearn for such oases gives me the feeling that a counterreaction is in the making. Constant availability is no longer a do-or-die thing. I often take my good old time before replying to mails.
“We are still far away from the general type of artificial intelligence that can find creative solutions to a wide variety of tasks the way we humans can.”
Does digitalisation make our life better or worse?
Both. It depends on the application. “Digitalisation” doesn’t in fact exist; there are only an incredible number of new platforms, applications, technologies, algorithms and “stuff”. So actually, we need to evaluate each of them individually. With any technological gimmick that’s new: does it make sense; is it potentially dangerous; how can we use it best; how can we minimise the risks? These are not questions we can answer when addressing “digitalisation” as a whole.
What do you think carries more weight: the risks or the opportunities associated with digital progress?
That’s perhaps not even the most pressing issue here. Technological progress will continue one way or the other. So the really big question is how we go about dealing with it.
What development will shape our lives most in the future?
I don’t like to make forecasts – you end up being wrong too often. Look at all the stuff that was promised to us in days gone by: the smartwatch and 3-D cinema are two good examples of unfulfilled expectations. I’d like it if we not only spent our time dreaming up new digital gadgets, but also by addressing the major challenges that ultimately affect “old industries” – matters like urban development, housing, our energy supply and transportation. Digitalisation can help us in this regard.
You’re an author, writer, essayist, dramaturge, ethicist and scientist: which comes first?
In what type of environment do you feel most comfortable?
At home in the evening, spending time with friends.
Value of the awards?
For me, prizes aren’t just a recognition of my work – for us writers, they’re also a source
I have several essays in the works and am preparing my next novel. However, I’m not far enough along with all of this to want to talk about it.
Short questions – short answers
If you had to describe yourself with 3 hashtags, what would they be?
#People should #not be portrayed by #hashtags.
What’s your favourite app? Which one is indispensable in your daily professional and personal life?
Which background image do you have on your mobile phone or laptop?
A photo of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, taken two weeks before their voyage to the moon.
What was your dream job when you were a kid? Why did you ultimately choose your current profession?
Deepsea diver. But then I started to read a lot of books, at which point the desire to become a writer took hold.
Can you remember the first mobile phone you ever had? What model was it?
It was a grey clamshell phone. I don’t recall the brand.