Digitization may appear old hat, a familiar megatrend that has been ongoing for at least two decades and to which everyone has become accustomed. That would constitute a dangerous misjudgement, however; after all, it is becoming ever clearer how digital technologies and the use of artificial intelligence are in the process of fundamentally transforming our society. In this sense digitization is not simply about acquiring new tools that allow us to proceed as we did before but to do so better, faster and more reliably. The increasing use of digital technologies is changing the basic principles of our society: the way wecommunicate with one another, how we organize our social lives, how we engage in public debate, how we work, stay healthy or pursue science. Furthermore, digital technologies are changing the way that humans see themselves, the characteristics that define them and the rights to which they are entitled.
Digitization is challenging the basic democratic order within which we in Germany and Europe need to find political responses to these challenges. This is evident when artificial intelligence systems are used with the aim of manipulating election decisions, for example. Furthermore, digital communication in the social media is changing public political debate, which is indispensable for a democracy. Social media have led to a fragmentation of the population into individual groups and have caused polarized and extreme views to become widespread and significant patterns of communication.
This transformation will ultimately also affect democratic rights and norms such as solidarity, equality, freedom, participation, transparency and privacy. This is because it is by no means the case that all the digital technologies used around the world recognize these rights and norms. It would therefore be an oversimplification to view digitization merely as an innovative step forward that we should not miss out on.
This is illustrated by two developments in the past decade: for one thing, digital media and devices are almost universally available nowadays and have become a fixture of everyday life. This has enormously compacted the relationship between humans and machines driven by algorithms. We are hardly able any longer to separate our human habits from such habits as result from our interactions with digital applications. For another thing, data volumes and processing capacities have increased rapidly. As a result of this development, new machine-learning applications are created on a daily basis. They far exceed even complex cognitive human abilities. What is more, the performance and versatility of algorithmic systems are no longer simply a matter of programming computers. These days, machines learn themselves and are able to draw on huge quantities of data that surpass any human processing ability – especially on data that reflect human behaviour. This applies to communication and mobility, as well as to the state of health and physical function of billions of people, and also includes their consumer decisions.
It is of paramount importance that society should be involved in shaping the use and further development of digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, taking advantage of their opportunities and limiting their negative effects.