The digital transformation is causing some of the most profound societal challenges of the 21st century. This year there will be almost 25 billion networked devices, approximately 3.5 for every person on the planet. Cloud computing, cross-border supply chains, the Internet of Things (IOT), e-commerce and the sharing economy are giving rise to new ways of living, working and communicating.
The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the move toward digitization, drawing out aspects of inequality even as it enables new forms of economic and social resilience. Against this backdrop of opportunities and challenges, the Aspen Institute Germany is working on the most pressing questions of technology as they impact the lives of Germans, Europeans and the global community. In 2021, our work has been based on 5 pillars:
The AI innovation race is on. Bigger data sets, stronger algorithms and faster computers are bringing breakthroughs in voice and visual recognition, language analysis, sensors, robotics and data processing. This confluence of AI-enabled emerging technologies is transforming all corners of life from insurance underwriting to notaries, sports refereeing, loan offerings, advertising, policing and even national security. The Aspen Values-Driven AI Initiative aims to make sure that this process is accompanied by discussion and debate about how this general-purpose technology can be used to advanced good, just societies.
Aspen Berlin Annual AI Conference
As part of its work, the Aspen Institute Germany launched its annual Aspen Berlin Artificial Intelligence Conference in 2018 to bring together citizens, policy-makers, business leaders, innovators, economists, philosophers, religious leaders, union organizers, civil society and security experts together to discussion on the possibilities and pitfalls of AI.
The first two conferences, “Humanity Disrupted: Artificial Intelligence and Changing Societies” and “Humanity Defined: Politics and Ethics in the AI Age” told the beginning of a story of how European, American, and East Asian societies are grappling with the impacts of AI and addressed some of the ethical questions facing democracies in the face of AI’s transformative potential.
In December 2020, the third conference: “Humanity Enabled: Artificial Intelligence and the Great Economic Acceleration” was hold. It examined the economic dimensions of AI and its impact on labor, productivity, global competition, education, and social benefits. The conference had a look at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on technology, how it altered economic prospects across sectors and professions. It had also a look at the German EU Presidency and aspirations to pursue Europe’s digital sovereignty and preserve fundamental rights within the EU even as Europe attempts to promote innovation and tech usage.
Aspen Germany will continue the story arc in 2021 under the heading “Humanity Empowered: Building Resilience with AI.” With some hindsight, Covid-19 has catalyzed political discussions on key issues ranging from technological sovereignty and communication infrastructures to the faster digitalizing of public services, businesses, work, and education. As many countries are still working to transition out of this pandemic, one of the key questions is, how well prepared will they be for the next crisis, and the ones after that? Can the current political momentum, built on painful and costly lessons learned, be sustained 5, 10, or 15 years down the road?
Many of the established and proven methods of risk management are doomed to fail because they are not geared to the new nature of risks, which are often complex, multi-causal and characterized by a high degree of uncertainty. Based on these challenges, the overarching questions of the next Aspen Berlin AI Conference will therefore be: how can we make our societies more resilient? How can the resilience of complex socio-technical and socio-economic systems – also across borders – be supported? And what role can artificial intelligence play in this? This conference will explore the role of innovation and key technologies in building future-proof societies – particularly as these themes continue to gain traction heading into the 2021 federal election.
High-Level Workshop on AI and Society
Within the framework of this initiative, Aspen Germany organizes regular off-the-record workshops on Artificial Intelligence. These workshops focus on diverse themes including national security, the future of work, and bias in algorithms. Aspen Germany has also participated in workshops and research as part of a broader “Aspen NextGen Network.” These bring together Germany’s future leaders and examine the opportunities provided by AI, as well as the ethical challenges digital technologies pose in light of a dignity-based social contract. The goal of this exercise is to break down barriers between siloed communities and explore scenarios that will provide a better sense of the ethics of AI in Germany and Europe.
Influencers are playing an increasingly important role as agenda setters and information launderers, and their growing importance in the information ecosystem is accompanied by growing responsibility. Especially with regard to elections, they can also exert influence on political behavior in their respective communities. The Corona pandemic has led to an increase in fake news, conspiracy myths and disinformation campaigns especially online and on social media platforms. Against this backdrop, it is more important than ever to bring German influencers, policymakers and representatives from the media and civil society into a constructive dialogue around issues of understanding democracy, (platform) regulation, ethical media use and disinformation. One of the aims of this platform for dialog is to contribute to a fact-based political and social online ecosystem.
In the first workshop we will look at the fundamental questions surrounding the role of influencers, gatekeeper media, civil society organizations and politicians in democracies. This does not only include an assessment of their own role, but also a look at the responsibility this entails towards followers, readers and voters. Experiences with fake news and disinformation campaigns within influencer communities – especially prior to and during election campaigns – will serve as a basis for discussion. In addition, stakeholders from politics, media, academia and civil society will be given a platform to share their respective assessments and experiences, with the aim of creating an atmosphere for constructive dicussion from which all sides can benefit. The workshop will be held in German and under Chatham House Rule. The project is generously supported by the Open Society Foundations and takes place in partnership with Reachbird.
Over the past two decades, a Great Decoupling of productivity from wages and jobs has begun rewiring economies, pushing out labor as the central factor in economic life. The reason is simple: Productivity gains are now principally technology-driven—benefiting the rise of the Internet, automation, behavioral analytics and social media, and increasingly robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) and the internet of things. As productivity increasingly decouples from labor and becomes a function of technology, the effects are being felt throughout economies, labor markets and communities. Productivity gains have accumulated disproportionately at the upper end of the wealth spectrum as income inequality grows and social mobility becomes more difficult. At the same time, this pushes labor into gig jobs as work becomes more tenuous. It is not a question of jobs per se, but of the quality of jobs.
Against this backdrop, the Aspen Institute Germany is hosting a 4-part workshop series together with Microsoft consisting of the following sessions: 1) Lessons from Past Industrial Revolutions; 2) Rethinking the Social Contract; 3) Automation and the Education Cycle; and 4) Opening Up the Policy Maker’s Toolbox. These discussions ultimately aim to tackle the questions: How can Europe, the U.S. and other industrial powers thrive in the face of the great decoupling? How can public policy efforts work to preserve and deepen the dignity of work and meaningful economic participation in the deep digital age? If conversations on the changing relationship between productivity, technology and labor are left unaddressed, there risks being an increase of public anxiety toward AI, robotics and other technology; damage to public trust in institutions; aggravated frictions between sectors and states; and greater populist backlash.
With the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Aspen Institute Germany launched a virtual conversation series on “COVID-19 and Technology”. This Zoom-based series gave participants the opportunity to engage with leading researchers, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, thinkers and civil society in interactive discussions looking at how tech is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in Germany, Europe, the transatlantic space and the world. Talks addressed how technology like AI, 3D printing and big data are supporting diagnostics, medical production, resilience and analytics of infection spreading.
They dealt with issues around the geo-politics of tech in the pandemic, the race for a vaccine, cybersecurity, disinformation and fake news, and the use (and misuse) of data. This eight-part series ran from March to June and included 20 speakers and over 700 guests. All discussions were recorded and can be found on Aspen Germany’s YouTube Channel. This series was made possible by our partner, Google.
The Aspen Institute Germany occasionally organizes “Digital Dishes” that features provocative thinkers for an intimate, off-the-record lunch or dinner in Berlin to discuss an issue related to the most pressing tech policy debates. The Dish brings together a mix of frontier thinkers on tech policy and specialists focusing on the U.S.-European relationship. By bringing together both communities, the Digital Dish Luncheon Series addresses trends, frictions and successes in the transatlantic tech policy space and contextualize issues in the broader U.S.-European relationship.
Previous guests include Lars-Hendrik Röller, Chancellor Merkel’s top economic advisor G7/G20 Sherpa, Dieter Janecek (Alliance 90/The GREENS), Thomas Jarzombek (CDU), Nadine Schön (CDU), Thomas Heilmann (CDU), Berlin State Secretary Christian Rickerts, Baden-Württemberg Tech Advisor Natalia Jaekel, and Howard Dean, fmr. Governor of Vermont.
The Digital Program would like to thank its partners who have generously supported our initiatives: the State Representation of Baden-Württemberg, the Ministry of the Interior, Digitisation and Migration of Baden-Württemberg, the Heinz und Heide Dürr Stiftung, Microsoft, the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, Google, Dell, DNVGL, the German AI Association, Brunswick, the Internet Economy Foundation, the Atlantic Council, Deutsche Telekom, Telefonica, DXC Technology, Schnittger Möllmann Partners, the Italian Embassy in Berlin, the Estonian Embassy in Berlin and Pfizer.
We would also like to thank our media partners Der Tagesspiegel, Sicherheitshalber, Berlin Policy Journal, Internationale Politik, RBB, KCRW Berlin, and Deutschlandfunk Nova.