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Science and technology

Discussion: Human phobias in the digital age

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In the last twenty years more technological changes have taken place than perhaps ever before in human history. We invite you to join a conversation about digital phobias and their underlying causes, share your opinions, and listen to the experts.

David Gorodyansky
tech entrepreneur and Silicon Valley business angel
“Digital technology is developing much more quickly than our consciousness.”
I fear for society as a whole. Digital technology is developing much more quickly than our consciousness, so there are many things happening today that people don’t fully understand. 
 
How is our data collected, and what happens to it? There is currently an annual market worth over $200 billion in which companies aggregate our data without us realizing it, and re-sell it. I once bought a new iPhone and installed a programme on it to show who was collecting my data. A week later it had gathered the details of more than 2000 firms I didn’t know about. 
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Over the next five years the number of devices that will “read” our information will grow to 100 billion units. These smart devices won’t be just our smartphones but any object around us: our watches, fridges, TVs and even our mattresses. This is meant to make things super-easy for you: your fridge will order your food, for example — after all, it knows what you eat. Your mattress will send your doctor data about how you’ve slept. The flipside is the accumulation of a vast amount of data that people can do anything they like with, and there’s also the danger of it being seized by hackers. 
 
How does artificial intelligence affect our psyche and the future in general? 
It has been predicted that 85 million people will lose their jobs by 2025 because of artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, companies that are developing artificial intelligence will create a new economic power of $15 trillion. Who will control this power? It will probably be the five companies we’re all familiar with: Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon. 
 
But all these things are not scary in themselves: what does it actually matter if artificial intelligence replaces humans? After all it certainly performs certain tasks more effectively. What’s important is to recognize this and prepare for it, for example by giving people a basic income so that they can start to do something else now their current work is no longer needed. 
 
And now to come on to data: if people grasp that their data is valuable then there will be an opportunity to control the processes. Society is just starting to understand this.  The next step could be a social control mechanism. In principle, we should initiate all this ourselves. After all, collecting our data is profitable to everyone but protecting it is hardly profitable for anyone. 

Alexander Kaplan
Head of the Laboratory for Neurophysiology and Neuro-Computer Interfaces, Lomonosov Moscow State University
“I would not overestimate artificial intelligence at present.”
I can’t say that digital technology inspires fear in me. Fear is linked to an instinct for self-preservation and survival. This can be biological (fear of a wolf or fire), social (fear of being humiliated or not accepted in society), or existential (a fear of being killed when there’s a direct threat to life). When it comes to technology, it’s more appropriate to talk about alarm, which involves unease about something non-specific, unclear and new.

I am personally anxious about whether people will retain their essential nature amid the ubiquitous onslaught of artificial intelligence. It will definitely replace us in many professions — it may even take the work of 50% of the population.
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But I would not overestimate artificial intelligence at present. In essence it is digital — that is, it’s a collection of algorithms. Take chess as an example: it’s well known that artificial intelligence beats people at chess. But does it really beat them? No: it’s pure cheating. The programme contains data about all the championship games that have ever been played. So, you have a machine in front of you that’s manipulating these games. When a human being plays a move, the machine immediately looks to see what the successful outcomes are for that specific situation, and it responds with the most suitable option.

If a chess player turned up at the World Championship with a laptop, he’d be thrown out. But with this machine you have a thousand processes — think of it as a thousand laptops — and it’s playing with a human being. That’s not intelligence; it’s just an excessive number of options. That’s why I call it cheating. But I do acknowledge that artificial intelligence outstrips some of our abilities, and that does look like intellectual superiority.

But the human brain has an important characteristic and that’s its creative approach. The brain has adapted and fine-tuned itself for millions of years, as mammals have evolved. It has learned how to solve problems in conditions of uncertainty. Ultimately, approaches to successfully solving problems in uncertain situations have developed. You could call that intuition. But the fact remains that evolution has endowed our brains with a certain unique skill that algorithms can’t handle — at least not yet.
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Viktor Vakhshtain
Sociologist, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka)
“The pandemic has turned a large number of techno-optimists into technophobes.”
Sociology examines collective ideas about the world. When we speak about fears we don’t generally mean specific fears, but certain images based on world views — mass expectations and beliefs. When it comes to technology, there’s an interesting picture that varies from country to country.

According to the Eurobarometer in Russia study in 2017, 42% of Russia’s population firmly believed that technological progress would solve all humanity’s problems in the near future. Unlike us, Western Europe was highly techno-sceptical: in England only 19% shared this view and in France the figure was 18% (data: Eurobarometer). There is also a technophobe group in Russia, which maintains that technological progress poses threats and risks to humanity. At that point, these people made up 8% of the population.

Also in 2017, according to research from the Pew Research Center, 72% of residents of the United States were sure they would lose their jobs in the future due to artificial intelligence. But 68% stated that they were even more afraid that robots would be used in hiring processes. And so, the only thing that’s even more frightening than a robot taking your job is an HR robot.
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The number of technophobes in Russia grew from 8% to 24% in 2020. Moreover, this growth was due to the techno-optimists moving into the opposite camp: those who were sure that technological progress would solve all humanity’s problems a few years ago now see technology as a threat. The pandemic has turned a large number of techno-optimists into technophobes. How did this happen?

There are four areas where levels of trust vary: trust in technology, in government, in friends and acquaintances, and in human nature in general. 2017 saw a growth in techno-paternalism in the United States: the “bloody corporations” such as Google were devising technologies that would leave people without work, so the government had to be approached straight away and persuaded to limit the ambitions of the corporations. This was linked to the fact that in the United States, trust in the government was much stronger than trust in the corporations and the technologies they produce.

In Russia on the other hand, a low level of trust in government institutions in 2017 was compensated by a high level of trust in technology. Even then, almost 60% of the population believed that the courts would take fairer decisions if they simply tossed a coin. It is unsurprising that trust in a hypothetical “robot judge” grew to 23%: this is a large percentage. It’s much higher than in the United States which uses a system that really does remind you of a robot judge.

Techno-optimism diminished in Russia in 2020, and this was precisely because of increased government control due to the pandemic: the government used exactly the technology that people had been placing their hopes on. If government and technology used to be seen as opposites, it is now more as though they have become conflated. Time will tell which direction things will move in and whether this unexpected distrust of technology will become synonymous with distrust of government.