Technology’s Impact on Humankind and Where We’re Headed Next

We're kicking off 2021 with a new interview series: GOTO Unscripted, with our first round of interviews recorded back when we could still meet in person. GOTO Unscripted takes our conference speakers off the big stage and brings them behind the scenes for an intimate conversation on topics they know best.

How is technology shaping our world now, and, more importantly, how will these current developments impact our future? Dr. Gercke, a global thinker and writer focused on global security and cybersecurity, explores how different states and regions leverage various innovative technologies and casts a light on how our world will look in 30 years based on the technologies we’re investing in now. 

The journey to becoming an expert in how technology impacts society

Preben Thorø: Welcome, professor. Dr. Marco Gercke he's one of the world's experts in technology impacts on human society. How do you end up in a position like this? What's your background?

Dr. Gercke: Well, here comes the difficulty, I don't have this straight career where I would just do one thing and only one. I've done different things in my life. I've founded a couple of companies. I taught myself when I was very young, developed software in the field of detection of medical diseases. Then I studied medicine and law for a while, did a Ph.D., started teaching, was advising governments, was advising international organizations. And I'm now an entrepreneur investor and still teach from time to time. There's a mixture that I think makes it interesting for me to combine those different disciplines.

Preben Thorø: I guess a general interest in the world, and our history, and what has formed our society.

Dr. Gercke: Yes, it is very important to not only focus on one technical aspect but see the broader picture. While I'm always interested, especially due to what my work for governments is, there are real-world implications of anything you're implementing. When you have a new technology, the techie inside of me, the person who previously coded and sees the opportunities and the technical possibilities, that if you see, as a politician, they will think they have to implement it. When I'm drafting legislation and policies for countries, I think about, what does it mean to the people? So bringing those different things together is I think, very important.

Technology hubspot

Preben Thorø: If you look back through history, we have had a lot of, we would say, global technology hotspots, China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, throughout history. What are the current hotspots in the world right now?

Dr. Gercke: I believe, first of all, it's very important to keep in mind that there were previous developments, and there were times when certain regions of the world were playing a leading role. So this is not unique, what we have right now. I think globalization, in general, leveled the playing field that it could be any region. We've seen that India was playing a major role when it comes to services, to digital services. Right now, you can't really say. I think there are indications that China is playing a very strong role when it comes to the development and implementation of technology. It's not like in the past, where you would say, "China is just producing things. It's the factory of the world." When you're looking at their investments in technology, it's amazing. It's very interesting to see that they're turning from a factory to actually the designers of services. What is maybe even more interesting is that they're actually implementing this technology in the everyday life of people. So you could say it has a hotspot there. Certainly, Silicon Valley is important, the entire field around Stanford is an important area. But Europe also has areas with great potential, just look at Estonia. I believe you can't really say there are territories, you would more look into entire regions or technologies and where they're applied.

Preben Thorø: India is, for the time being, the fastest-growing country when it comes to the population growth rate in the world. Still many of us have a feeling that's only very few in India. It's like the country's very divided. There are poor regions and there are industrial hotspots in India. Do you see India taking over the globe? Will they succeed in making the entire country a frontrunner in the world technology-wise?

Dr. Gercke: I'm not sure if I would say this. I would, first of all, say that you find the same situation… not the same, but similar challenges, differences between those big regions and the more rural areas, almost anywhere. You find it in the United States when you're leaving the coast area and turn towards the middle of America. You find it in Europe. You find it even in states like Germany where you have the eastern part of Germany and the west, on the previous western part of Germany, being completely different areas when it comes to infrastructure and standards of living and wages. So I don't think it's only an issue of India. But being a developing country, there are certain challenges that, I believe, cannot be addressed through technology. There is way more to this and there is way more necessary to harmonize standards of living. One of the challenges that we have all around the world is that the people are moving towards the centers. They're moving towards large urban areas where you usually find jobs, you find the services that you want. What we need to ensure, and this is where technology can play a certain role, is that we're rolling out the technology in rural areas that are currently disconnected. That can improve the standards of living there. This can build good-paying jobs in these regions and can maybe help countries, large countries like India but also developed Western countries in further developing these rural areas.

Will machines take over people’s jobs?

Preben Thorø: I think what you are saying here is very important, the human population shouldn't forget about that. One thing that really defines our identity here in the Western world, at least, is what we're doing in our everyday life. That's most often the first question we're met with, "So what are you doing for a living?" I suppose the future will change. If we look at China, for instance, it's really a strategy founded from the very top of the government that we need to invest in AI because society will change and machines will take over the jobs from human beings. Is that a trend we see everywhere? Will machines take over the jobs and should we be afraid of that?

Dr. Gercke: First of all, we've always seen, ever since machines were introduced in working spaces, that machines are taking over jobs. There are some jobs that humans just don't want to do. These are especially in the field of production of cars. When you just look in the old days, there are things that machines can just do better. They can lift a car. It's something we can't easily do. So I believe that this trend will definitely continue. The difference will be that it will not be the classical labor work, the physical work where machines will take over, but it will be more the intellectual work. Any work, whether it's accounting, it's the law, anything you can imagine where there is a certain degree of repetition, machines will be able to do better than humans. So we have to prepare for machines entering this field. 

That will have a disruptive effect, just as the introduction of machines always had a disruptive effect. Just think about farming, how many people were working in the farming industry, how much more productive it is today with very, very few people working in this field. So the main difference that I see here is we can learn from the past. History does not repeat, but it rhymes. You can learn from those trends and see there is the possibility to adapt to it, there is the possibility for further development once you have erased jobs in other areas. However, it takes time. And this time, I believe we don't have the time. It's not like 200 years of time to prepare for moving from 50 percent work in the farming sector to 2 percent today. We have significantly less time now and that requires the active involvement of politicians, good policies to cover this process and to make sure that this is not an unstructured development mainly driven by the industry, but that this is a process where politics and administration are closely involved and ensures that we do not end up in a situation where a lot of people are losing their jobs, and they don't know what to do, and we cannot provide them with any jobs in the future.

An average working day in 30 years

Preben Thorø: So how will an average working day look for kids in 30 years? Will they work from 9:00 to 5:00?

Dr. Gercke: It is very difficult, these days, to predict what's gonna happen in 30 years because the developments that took place in the last 5 years are so dramatic that if we are continuing at this speed or if the speed increases, it is very difficult to even say what's going to happen in 10 years. However, I think that your kids will probably have similarities to your life in their life as well. The only question is, will the dominance of work that we have right now, where you have the same job for 10 or 20 years and you're working from 9:00 to 5:00, whether this is part of their life, or if we see what we already see right now, that more people are moving into different jobs that were unforeseeable in the future. I mean, if you told people 10 years ago, you can upload your own videos on a video platform and you can make a living out of this, they would just, "No, you can't. You need a TV station. You need expensive TV equipment to do this. You can't afford it." Now all you need is a good idea, a cell phone, and a platform where you can sell your content. This is available. So maybe we see that it is not the traditional jobs that your kids are going to do. And the difficulty is that our educational systems are still preparing them for the jobs that we used to have 20 years ago and not necessarily for the jobs that we have right now and that we're going to have in the future.

The implications of technology reinventing itself

Preben Thorø: If we looked at how we have been using technology since we started walking on two legs, we've been using technology to develop other technologies, and use that technology to improve technology and develop the technology. Will we reach a point where the current technology starts to reinvent itself?

Dr. Gercke: Absolutely, I mean, we're already trying right now to use the technology that we have to develop its own things. We've seen that successfully being applied. We've seen this in the aviation industry, where machines were designing parts that were not designed by humans but we're using technology, that the technology itself designed something. I think, especially, machine learning is offering great opportunities. If a designer can go through 20 or 30 different designs every day, and he has 1 year's time to do something, he would always stick to what he knows, to the general things everybody does because he just has limited resources. However, if a machine can go through a million different designs in just a day, it can try new things. We've seen this from the design of antennas for satellites to the design of components of houses and changing the way we can build the entire architecture. This is going to continue in the future at an even higher speed. I believe it is good because for centuries, what we're doing is, things we learned, we're trying to pass on to the next generation. We're saying, "This is the way you do it. Copy me and you're good." And I believe that these new approaches like machine learning, enable us to say, you know what, we're gonna sit back, let a machine have a look at the process, and maybe come up with a completely different approach that might be better than what we're doing all the time because we are so stuck in what we're doing.

Preben Thorø: Shouldn't we be afraid of that? When Google released AlphaGo Zero, they had a machine that started with no knowledge at all. And what they did was they let it play against the previous generation AlphaGo. Over one night it reached the capability to beat its parent 100 to 0. So basically, over 24 hours, it learned 3000 years of history. At some point, this really could accelerate.

Dr. Gercke: I see, especially this process of machine learning, as absolutely positive. I'm not afraid about the fact that we're undertaking a different approach. I believe that too much in our world is based on the past and experiences we made that are set in stone. Whenever you're trying to break free from this development, whenever you say I want to do something different than other people, it's very difficult. As long as you're staying in the lane, everything is fine. As soon as you're saying I want to try something different, it's a problem. It's not as easy. 

I believe our society has always made progress when people started to do things differently. And this is how innovation comes. So I'm not afraid of machines trying a different approach. It doesn't mean that we need to do it. It doesn't mean that, in the end, if the machine comes up with some crazy ideas where we say, "Okay, they might have certain advantages, but we still like the old way. We'd like to build our houses the way we always did." And for historic reasons, that's a good argument. But just setting us free from the past and from all the techniques that were given, passed on from generation to generation is something where I think it offers opportunities to start with an empty page and say, "Let's rethink it. Let's rethink how we build a building. Does it really need to look like the buildings that we've built throughout the time? Or can it look different?" And we've seen over the past that, especially those buildings, those architects that built buildings that look different from the usual building, these are the ones that are sticking out right now. These are the ones that we're conserving right now.

Preben Thorø: What if the machine decides the same thing, shouldn't we release ourselves from history? I mean if you step on an ant on the street, it probably doesn't change anything in the big picture. What if a self-driving car decides that, well, getting rid of one human being doesn't really change anything in the big picture?

Dr. Gercke: That's correct. First of all, it's not automatic that those principles and value systems that we developed will be applied by a machine. If you would task a machine with driving through a street and it has a passenger in the back, and there is a situation where it needs to decide between either hitting a human that is walking on the street or driving into a wall and it would maybe kill the passenger in the back, if you don't teach the machine value systems, it would probably just say, "Okay, one human being less, that's not an issue, we have enough of them." However, we can implement these rules, we can say there are certain rules. It's exactly the same when you're designing a house. You would tell the machine, there are certain conditions, there needs to be the possibility to place a bed in a room. So you need to make sure that the concrete floor is suitable for carrying things of a certain weight each square meter. That's something that is absolutely typical and usual. I believe that we need to make sure that these rules are well defined. However, with regard to many situations, it is very difficult for us to formulate those rules. So going back to my examples, you have a self-driving vehicle, there is a situation where somebody's just jumping on the road, even if it uses its super-advanced brakes, it would still hit the person, or it can crash into a wall and kill the passenger. How would a human solve this problem? It is basically impossible to solve this problem and therefore it's difficult to create a rule. We cannot expect a machine to apply a rule that doesn't exist, that we can't formulate. So we should not go to the extreme when rebuilding those situations, but just try to teach the machine in the everyday life where we want to apply it, what are the rules that are applying and make sure that it follows just with regard to human beings.

Preben Thorø: Exactly. At the end of the day, I wouldn't like to make a decision of weighing one human being's life over 10 others. So should I go in that direction, killing one, or that other direction, killing 10? I wouldn't really like to make that decision. But from a purely rational point of view, which we tend to project onto machines, it should go for one rather than 10.

Dr. Gercke: Well, I don't agree in this regard. In most legal systems that I've been working in, there is this principle that you wouldn't start counting. You wouldn't say, "Okay, there's 1 human casualty, there are 10 human casualties, so let's go for the 1 human casualty." We don't do this. If you just say you don't teach the machine anything about ethical principles and legal principles, it might come to the conclusion 1, 10, it's better to go for 1. However, you can add this layer of saying, yes, that might sound logical, however, the ethical consideration, and 1 is as much as 10. This is possible. We can even safeguard, we have the technology today to make sure that these ethical principles that we're implementing are actually really applied. Unlike with regard to human beings, we're putting all kinds of things in our criminal codes and say this is not allowed, this is not allowed, and this is not allowed, but people are still violating it. These are the people, some of them end up in prison and others not. However, we can use technology that we have today to make sure that machines do follow the rules, and that we can afterwards verify whether it followed the rules. This offers great possibilities. I don't want to say it is without danger. I don't want to say there are no challenges, there are hundreds of challenges ahead of us, but it doesn't mean that we cannot address them, or that we have to say we ignore this technology. I believe it's an opportunity, and apart from this, it's out there, it will be used anyway. So why don't we go through a guided process where we're saying, let's develop principles, let's apply them and let's make sure that we safeguard them

Does China have an advantage when it comes to advancing new technology in society? 

Preben Thorø: Ethics and regulations is basically what we're talking about here. And I think it's no big secret that it's different in Europe and China. Does China have an advantage over Europe when it comes to technology and advancing technology and new technology in society?

Dr. Gercke: First of all, think of my experience, having worked with around 100 countries worldwide, helping a lot of them to develop legislation, regulations, policies, that there are not that many differences. For example, if you're looking at the criminal law system in China, the code itself is very much based on the German penal code. There are great similarities. That's the first thing. However, there are differences. There are differences in the way the political system works, for example.

Things can more easily be implemented in China. If you don't listen to your people, if you don't have processes where people can stop certain developments by saying, "No, no, we reject to the idea that there is a rail track here, or that you're building something right in the middle of a protected area," if you don't have those, of course, the speed might be faster. The question is, if the society will accept this, and if the society is happy with this, and how the society will respond to it. I very much believe in the democratic processes. I very much believe in the idea that we're having different interests that have to come together. It's not only one decision-maker who says I want to do it, but I want to go through a process. And therefore I'm always worried when I see processes that are streamlined with regard to efficiency, and you don't have different interests that also exist in China, like they exist everywhere, that you don't have them reflected. I don't want to bash China. There are very positive developments there. There are things that we can see with regard to the use of technology, where they increased safety, where they increased the protection of resources. But I believe that they're fundamentally different political systems. 

I'm a strong believer in democracy and strengthening democracy. And I also see in the Western world, that some countries are trying to streamline the processes. When the president of the United States believes he has the power to decide whether to start a war or not, or to impose tariffs and not include the Congress, that's also something where we don't need to point to China, where we can also say, "Well, is this the right process?" On the other hand, if you're looking in Europe, endless debates and where an agreement cannot be reached, that can also not be the solution. We need to work on those fundamental principles, but also accept that some countries are different and that some systems are different and not superior to the other.

Are things improving overall?

Preben Thorø: Are we becoming better at this looking back over the past 10, 20 years? 

Dr. Gercke: I believe that we are living in a time that has never been this good before. This is the best time to be alive. And I believe that when your kids are 30, I still hope that this is also the best time in human history. Therefore, I believe, yes, we're getting better and these difficulties in the processes, the need to debate, and having different opinions also, and they're opinions that you don't like, political processes that you don't agree to, political parties where you don't agree to, having this debate is, I think, something very positive. And to see that in the last European elections, there were more people participating is something very positive. That's something where I think you can see that this is not a trend where the interest of the people is declining, but where there is great interest. We can encourage people to be even more interested. Maybe the future will allow your kids in 30 years to spend less time working in jobs, but more time participating in a democracy and sharpening the future.

A future where human beings are entertainment for the machines?

Preben Thorø: Or maybe my kids in 30 years, maybe they are in a world where machines are basically taking over most of the labor that is being performed by human beings today. Could we imagine a future where human beings are more entertainment for the machines?

Dr. Gercke: Well, if you want to be sarcastic, you could say that it's already the case because if you're just looking at some of the situations, you could interpret them in a way that the machines are already playing with human beings. So when you go to YouTube and watch a video, you get recommendations, and around 70% of the videos that are watched on YouTube are based on recommendations. A machine and algorithm was pointing you towards a video. When we start analyzing which videos are they pointing to, sometimes it's really odd. They're pointing you towards conspiracy theories. You could say, okay, there's an algorithm playing with you, seeing if you're going to move into this direction if it can present you completely stupid videos and you're going to watch them. However, I don't see it this way. If you're looking down on the road, right now, there are cars driving humans, they're not walking anymore, they're driving. When you're looking into how people navigate through a building, they're going to a lift or an escalator. Machines are already a major part of our society. I, however, don't think that this necessarily means that we don't have space. I think it will just change the perspective. It will open new doors because we don't have to do the work that we're currently doing. It will allow us to enter new spaces and say, I'm going to do work where previously we never had resources to do or very few people are currently investing resources. 

We're going to see… I cannot anticipate the future. I don't know what it's going to look like. I'm worried about some of the trends. I'm worried about too many decisions being taken by machines and us being unable to verify what the machines are doing. However, in general, I have a positive view into the future. I believe that there will be more of a positive interaction and more active interaction. Right now my car does not necessarily interact with me, I'm just driving it stupidly somewhere. Wouldn't it be nice if there would be more of an interaction or a dialogue between me and the technology that I'm using?

How will Mars colonized by people look like?

Preben Thorø: In a maybe near, maybe distant future where we start colonizing Mars, will that be a copy of planet Earth or will it be a completely different civilization that we're building out there?

Dr. Gercke: I believe that in general things like traveling back to the moon, or traveling to Mars, or even other planets in the future is something important because it's inspiring us. It's just taking us a step further. I don't believe that building colonies on Mars is the future of mankind. I think it would be way more important to protect this planet and to make sure that we can survive on this planet than putting our hopes up that we will build up something new on a different planet. There are significantly more resources required to build up something outside of this planet than we would need to protect this planet and to do better here. So I think that a lot of people are putting hope on colonies on Mars or traveling to other solar systems, that have given up on this planet, or that are not as optimistic with regard to the future of this planet. I believe that the future of mankind is here, and I'm very thankful for the current political movements all around the world with regard to putting more emphasis on protecting the environment. We see this both in the United States with ambitious political plans with the opposition party, we see it in Europe, more consciousness of the importance of the environment, more awareness of the importance of the environment by many people, especially the younger generation. So I think this is where our focus should be. I'm open to all technical innovations. Let's send people to Mars if this drives innovation and encourages people to look forward, but the focus should be here.

If you were the president of Earth, how would you spend resources?

Preben Thorø: So one final question, if you became the president of the earth with unlimited power, how should we spend our resources and technology?

Dr. Gercke: I'm a strong believer that my personal views are not that important. I'm advising governments all the time. I'm not trying to advise governments in a way that I want them to do what I believe is right but it's what is right for the people. And usually, a politician of a small Pacific Island knows much better what his people need than I do. I don't come to places and tell them that my view of the world should be what they're doing. I don't know, despite all my travel, I don't know the world well enough to be able to say where we should put our resources. If you see it from a perspective of a Western country, you might want to invest in cleaner air, having less traffic on the street. If you're living in a rural area in a developing country where you don't have access to water, they might say, "Hey, I need some water first." And if you're living in an area, if you're living in one of those major metropolises in this world, and you're struggling to earn enough money for your family, and send them to a college and enable them a better future, the most important thing for you might be, "I need income. I need proper wages." I believe we have in different parts of the world, even in different… within countries, we have different priorities, and we should address all of them. There shouldn't be this one… there isn't the one thing that we need to solve, but there are a lot of micro things that we need to solve. And I believe in regional power, that the people that are close to the ground, that have their boots on the ground, in dialogue with the constituencies, with the people that are living there should determine what is really important.

Preben Thorø: Thanks for taking the time.

Dr. Gercke: You're most welcome.

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