Dealing responsibly with technological progress

Statement of Univ.-Prof. Dr. Markus Hengstschläger, academic director of ACADEMIA SUPERIOR

How much tech­no­log­i­cal progress does soci­ety tol­er­ate? Will arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, self-learn­ing algo­rithms, advanc­ing dig­i­ti­za­tion and robot­ics mov­ing for­ward make our future tru­ly pre­dictable? And what will all this do to us? In two days of intense work, we tack­led these ques­tions at the ninth SURPRISE FACTORS SYMPOSIUM and attempt­ed to answer them. As with all the rapid tech­no­log­i­cal progress one thing must not be left behind: the  human being.


This was pre­cise­ly the incen­tive for look­ing at the top­ic “Pre­dic­tive Futures: Mea­sur­ing the Future” from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. In ref­er­ence to the book Mea­sur­ing the World by Daniel Kehlmann, we set out to take a deep­er look and to shed light on the back­ground and effects of cur­rent devel­op­ments. The dis­cus­sions clear­ly showed: Tech­nolo­gies can open up immense oppor­tu­ni­ties for us as a soci­ety and as a coun­try. In order to take advan­tage of these per­spec­tives, a lot of edu­ca­tion, reflec­tion and reg­u­la­to­ry guide­lines in pol­i­tics, sci­ence, busi­ness and soci­ety are required. Again this year we have been inspired by inter­na­tion­al per­son­al­i­ties from  dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines, mem­bers of our aca­d­e­m­ic advi­so­ry board and young stu­dents, who have point­ed out guide­lines for our future work at ACADEMIA SUPERIOR.

Enlightenment makes all the difference

Progress is only pos­si­ble if we engage in the unknown. Only when peo­ple dare to accept new chal­lenges and take advan­tage of new oppor­tu­ni­ties can we make progress as a soci­ety. How­ev­er, what is the ben­e­fit of new tech­no­log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties if they lim­it our capac­i­ty to act? What use are the dig­i­tal and tech­no­log­i­cal advan­tages if the price we pay for them is too high? “Pri­va­cy is becom­ing a thing of the past,” says the psy­cho­me­tri­cist Michal Kosin­s­ki. “We are on the path of dig­i­tal­ly dumb­ing down,” con­firms jour­nal­ist Susanne Gaschke and “robots need rules,” the com­put­er graph­ics sci­en­tist Nadia Mag­ne­nat Thal­mann adds. These state­ments are scary. And that’s human. How­ev­er, the dis­cus­sions showed that we can expect many ben­e­fits from tech­no­log­i­cal progress, at least when we know the results of our deal­ings with them.

Not only do prej­u­dice and half-knowl­edge have to be swept out of the way, but tech­no­log­i­cal progress has to be part of our teach­ing, part of the social and polit­i­cal dis­course. First and fore­most, it is nec­es­sary that the new tech­no­log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties find their place in school edu­ca­tion (and high­er edu­ca­tion), because we have to invest in these issues today in order to remain com­pet­i­tive in the future. Above all young peo­ple should learn how to ana­lyze, ques­tion and reflect on tech­no­log­i­cal, social and polit­i­cal real­i­ties. Although the nation­al con­text influ­ences the accep­tance of new tech­nolo­gies (and Aus­tria is far behind com­pared to coun­tries like Chi­na), we have a duty to do our best and make the most of the new para­me­ters. Aus­tria is com­pet­ing here on a Euro­pean and inter­na­tion­al level.

Shape the predictable – welcome the unpredictable

The expla­na­tions of the experts have made it clear that algo­rithms and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence can make many things pre­dictable in our lives. In many cas­es this can be an asset: Social robots in retire­ment and nurs­ing homes can not only sup­port the care­givers, but also act as social con­tacts for the patients In research, with more effi­cient infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing and visu­al­iza­tion, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence can fur­ther inno­vate or save lives in med­i­cine, e.g. by pre­dict­ing the risks of dis­ease through gene analy­sis. Algo­rithms also help us in every­day sit­u­a­tions: Avoid­ing traf­fic con­ges­tion with sys­tems like Google Maps helps to save fuel.


How­ev­er, noth­ing in life is free. Busi­ness mod­els that are based on intel­li­gent algo­rithms rely on every­one pro­vid­ing their per­son­al infor­ma­tion free of charge, because, if soft­ware com­pa­nies had to pay for data, many peo­ple would not be able to afford the ser­vices cur­rent­ly avail­able for free. In order to be able to use the oppor­tu­ni­ties of what is “pre­dictable”, it is nec­es­sary to have clear, inter­na­tion­al rules in deal­ing with these pos­si­bil­i­ties for both soci­ety and the econ­o­my. After all, the tech com­pa­nies that con­trol our data do not rec­og­nize nation­al bound­aries. This is where poli­cies must be applied and reg­u­la­to­ry guide­lines have to be for­mu­lat­ed because, with­out the nec­es­sary polit­i­cal frame­work, we run the risk of being restrict­ed in our actions and dri­ven by technology.

How­ev­er, we must not over­look that, in spite of all pos­si­bil­i­ties for  fore­cast­ing, there is still room for sur­pris­es. As humans we are influ­enced not only by our genet­ics, but also by our envi­ron­ment and, whether we like it or not, irra­tional behav­ior is part of human action.

The human being decides, not the machine

Deal­ing with the theme of “Pre­dic­tive Futures: Mea­sur­ing the Future” has shown us that each ques­tion has two sides. We can­not turn back time. It is there­fore all the more impor­tant to deal respon­si­bly with tech­no­log­i­cal progress and to inte­grate it into our lives in the best pos­si­ble way. At the same time, peo­ple have the duty to con­sci­en­tious­ly deal with new pos­si­bil­i­ties. The edu­ca­tion sys­tem and research have to throw light on the issue and cre­ate knowl­edge. The media have to trans­port this knowl­edge, and soci­ety should reflect and make moral deci­sions. The impor­tant thing is that we take care to use only those tech­nolo­gies whose actions we can fore­see. Pol­i­tics, research and soci­ety set the social and eth­i­cal frame­work in which machines and algo­rithms are allowed to “act”. Some­times, decel­er­a­tion may makes sense, if we want peo­ple to keep up with all this tech­no­log­i­cal progress. So it is up to us to shape the future the way we want it.

ACADEMIA SUPERIOR has set itself the task of ask­ing ques­tions today that will be impor­tant for the future of Upper Aus­tria. The answers con­tribute to the active shap­ing of our future. It is there­fore with great con­fi­dence that I look for­ward to work­ing in the com­ing months toward joint­ly devis­ing strate­gies for pre­dictable and unpre­dictable future events.