From tech to ethics: Will AI be a threat to journalism?

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The advent of highly accessible technology ushered in a new Modern era, and with automation, robots and Artificial Intelligence as buzzwords of choice for the media in recent times, what will the role of Human Journalism be in this Digital Modernity?

Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, Director of MAK, the Austrian Museum of Applied/Contemporary Art in Vienna, discusses the expectations and dangers surrender this newfound modernity and introduce the ‘Hello, Robot’ exhibition the GEN Summit attendees will get to enjoy for the first social event on Wednesday 21 June, at the close of the first day of the conference.

Richard Vijgen, Architecture of Radio, 2015 © 2016 Richard Vijgen Studio/Photo: Juuke Schoorl

GEN: For the media specialists attending the GEN Summit and visiting the exhibition, how is MAK approaching the topics of digital innovation, automation and robotics?

Christoph Thun-Hohenstein: The big picture is that the world is currently divided in two different movements: one is Dataism, a movement based on the belief that the ideal state of the world is not one governed by humans, but by data, as Big Data. To reflect on these assumptions, it is considered that data is constantly parsed, updated, analysed and algorithmically optimised, and that humans don’t play a pivotal role in it anymore. The human component of this data – in the broader sense of the term – has become redundant.

The other movement is the so-called “Techno-humanism”, which is about the upgrading of humans: intellectually, mentally and physically.

In both directions, and behind those movements, lies quite a lot of power and money. These movements could be useful in some of their teachings, but they are not anything to aspire to as a whole. We should instead focus more on the kind of future we want as humans, as biological beings with consciousness, on the evolution we want to achieve. Obviously journalism plays a big part in all of this, as a means to carry this debate, expose the informations and also give the general public of the needed perspective on the times we are living and where the technology we are embracing could be leading us to.

As self-learning digital machines are getting better at mimicking the human touch, our minds are getting accordingly adept at understanding and wholeheartedly accepting algorithms and digital systems taking over some parts of our lives.

We can imagine that more and more of our other human capabilities will be discarded, will not be used anymore if our mindsets are geared to work as digital partners with machines. How can we initiate a pro-human approach? How can we set a human agenda making us aware of what is happening, enabling us to use the parts of digital innovation that are really helpful and renounce the ones driving us in a direction we do not want to follow, if only we had the knowledge of the repercussion it would have for us in the future. In a nutshell, this is what the ‘Hello, Robot’ exhibition is all about.

What does it all mean for the media? What can journalists take away from this?

Obviously a lot is changing in the media right now, it is hard enough to know what it will look like as an industry in 5 years times. In my mind, we have barely started a discussion in the industry and with audiences, on where this new modernity will lead us. And it is important, as more automation, devices, algorithms, with the incremental innovation we get almost every day with upgrades, come into our lives. What options do we have? What influences are at play here? What about the money behind the digital monopolies being cemented as we speak, and where is this money leading to? with all the incremental innovation we get almost every day with upgrades.

There is quite a lot of research being conducted on developing a ‘superintelligence’: an artificial intelligence able to outsmart humans because it would be far superior to human intellectual capabilities, wherein lies countless possibilities. This is a point that will become more prominent in the next 30 to 40 years. Such a super intelligence is totally possible, is actually plausible.

So, what is needed for the media is to deal with the main aspects of digital modernity, with the possible outcomes of current digital developments and the implications these technologies would have on people’s lives, not only in 18 months time, but also in a few decades. The general public needs to understand the impact of robotics, artificial intelligence and also bio technology. This, I think the first big imperative we need to tackle.

What role can the media and news play in discussing the ethics issue with technology and automation?

Since digital programs will get increasingly smarter and prevalent, accounting for their self-learning capabilities, the media will make an impact as it makes the processes and stakes obvious to the audience. The question then will be whether we are able to discuss and collectively decide on a future we want to live in and plan for. There will hopefully be a scope for celebrating human qualities that cannot be calculated and catered for by digital programs, by algorithms. We should also want part of our lives to resonate.

Mia Meusburger and Johanna Pichlbauer, a visual display of summer’s status from Vienna Summer Scouts, 2014 © Mia Meusburger, Johanna Pichlbauer / ID2 Studio / University of Applied Arts, Vienna

As we live in a very fast world, we have more or less come to terms with this, we all organise or live with and by the terms of our smartphones. But I think we also need to reserve moments in our daly lives to get different content, different offerings.

We need to talk about ethics and technology, also about shaping the future, and what the options are. I think one task of the media is to dig, to expand on this topic and its potential repercussions – and I have to say that in the last year compared to 10 years ago, there has been tremendous progress as more publications are covering ethics in digital innovation now. But I doubt that this reflection is broader, gets further. Journalists have to become much more fundamental about this, to grasp the issue in its entirety, and for the general public to understand what is at stake.

A big part of what I believe and hope for is that the media has a big role to play in dealing with the most important dimensions of our new digital modernity. Because what is happening currently is a lot of attention turned towards brand new slices of innovation, disruptive innovation or other, but you rarely get across articles with the whole phenomenon of disruption put into perspective.

What do you think is sort of the biggest pitfall from this issue. If we don’t have this discussion about machines are we talking about what many scientists have pointed out which is that AI I might endanger the human species at some point. What are the dangers of this phenomenon?

Some scientists have been talking about this, a big wave of automation – more so than what exists now. Because the system works in such a way that as soon as one company starts to go down this of partial-to-full automation, when technology permits it, all the other companies in the same field have to do the same. This is the law of the market. When this happens, it will be big, there will be waves of innovation. Look at what happened to the service industry, banks or insurance companies, a large chunk of the workforce is being done away with, as they are becoming fully automated.

As long as we still have options, we need to be able to understand these issues and what they entail, so we can make the conscious choice to go all the way or into a completely different direction altogether.

Researchers working on artificial intelligence want to achieve progress and break new ground. They will not stop until they see the premise of a “superintelligence”, in the sense of artificial intelligence being much smarter than humans. There is nothing that will stop them from doing it.

We do not have a discussion broad enough about these issues currently but it is high time to do so. It has started, especially in the past year as I said, but it has to be much more systematic, this conversation has to have a much stronger presence everywhere.

Robotlab (ZKM), Manifest, 2008 © robotlab/ZKM

What would it take for the media to be more proactive on this front?

Not to be hypocritical, as algorithms are becoming important in journalism, and they will develop more and more, but to be precise and determined. A line needs to be drawn, and it needs to be clear that there still is an important scope for “human journalism” because even the most advanced self-learning machines cannot achieve what it can.

True storytelling is always going to be taken care of by human hands and a human brain, in one way or another: the voice of a piece is too important, so is the emotional approach, which might condition the reach and audience engagement.

Machine-learning really means that information can be processed, and replicated on the same par, quality-wise. And while machines can mimic with a similar apparent value, they cannot yet be creative and come up with something brand new, a new narrative. Here lies the inherent, and hopefully enduring, aspect of journalism and storytelling. Now to protect this, we need to start a discussion.

MAK, Museum of Applied/Contemporary Art, Vienna

About Christoph Thun-Hohenstein

Christoph Thun-Hohenstein assumed direction of the MAK — Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art on 1 September 2011. He was director of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York from 1999 to 2007, after which he served as managing director of departure — the Creative Agency of the City of Vienna, until August 2011. Christoph Thun-Hohenstein has published on topics dealing above all with European integration and with contemporary culture and art, and has held numerous lectures on these topics. He has also curated exhibitions of contemporary art, and he regularly serves on selection juries.


From tech to ethics: Will AI be a threat to journalism? was originally published in Global Editors Network on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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