«An AI can't be as creative and crazy as us humans»
Psychologist and best-selling author Allan Guggenbühl talks about how technology affects us in his "Sparx" video. In the interview, he goes into more detail on a few points and explains, among other things, why it is rather unlikely that we Swiss will marry virtual "personalities"one day.
Oliver Bosse spoke with Allan Guggenbühl
Most people would argue that technological progress has made our lives more efficient and easier. They say it also made us give up a lot of skills. Can you give me examples that illustrate this?
We acquire competences through confrontations in a social context. Both nature and society confront us with problems and challenges that we have to overcome. If technology takes this away from us, we will not gain this competence either. I read a good example of this in a book recently: In the 16th century, a Portuguese navigator was travelling the Strait of Magellan to a small island in the Pacific. To reach his destination, he relied on a sextant and compass, but they suddenly became untraceable. Lost in the endless expanse of the ocean, he no longer knew what to do. Fortunately, there was a man on board who came from a Micronesian island. He was able to navigate the crew to the island without any aids. How he managed to do this, he could not formulate himself. His ability was one of the skills of the Micronesians - they could read the sea, the currents and thus orient themselves in the vastness of the Pacific. There are also more recent examples, such as pilots who used to know how to read the clouds and thus predict when it would rain. Or there were people in the past who could describe the exact route from Zurich to Winterthur from memory - without a map or notes.
How does this abandonment of competences make itself felt today - is it problematic?
As long as it is scheduled and unproblematic services, there is usually no problem. We don't mind being guided from A to B thanks to a voice from Google Maps. However, I observe that handing over competences to technology becomes problematic when it comes to decisions where one should think about oneself and include one's personality. When it comes to career choices for young people, you can't rely on algorithms and tests, you have to be able to think about yourself and make a decision. However, many find it difficult to make autonomous decisions. Netflix also makes this clear to us. We are virtually told what we should watch next. But perhaps we would discover completely different exciting categories and series for ourselves if we went searching ourselves. We don't always want to follow our habits, but also look for the new. That's the only way we can continue to develop.
What are the consequences?
It is interesting that technical developments that make our lives more comfortable and easier trigger counter-reactions. To give an example here: People used to move around a lot more. Even long distances were covered on foot. Until the middle of the 19th century, the city of Zurich was still full of pedestrians. It is assumed that a quarter of the pedestrians ran. They were messengers who had to bring news from A to B, service personnel or people in a hurry. Then came carriages and later cars. Running had become superfluous. And what do you see today? People are running again. Everywhere you see joggers running around in the name of health. So being in motion and running seems to be a need that is now back in our everyday lives in a different way.
New technologies are fascinating, but at the same time they trigger fears; you don't know what to expect and what social changes you have to reckon with.
Is technology capable of permanently changing our being?
New technologies are fascinating, but at the same time they trigger fears; you don't know what to expect and what social changes you have to reckon with. When the telephone was invented, some feared anarchy. After all, you could now be contacted by people you didn't know, who were making amoral offers and who were not officially introduced to you! The fears have evaporated. When it comes to the internet, too, there are voices today that warn of a savagery of forms of communication. Over time, however, manners develop that make new technologies acceptable and make life easier, but without making us more competent.
And how do you see that with the current developments?
The impact of innovations is often overestimated. When encyclopaedias came along, there was talk that schools could now be abolished. The pupils could now answer questions themselves, the knowledge was accessible. New technologies trigger expectations that are usually only partially fulfilled. When the railway was built, it was believed that there would never be any more wars because peoples could now visit each other. Unfortunately, the opposite has come true. It is the same with artificial intelligence. Expectations are high, but only time will tell what it will bring to society.
Your "Sparx" talk is about the topic of artificial intelligence. You see a limit of technological possibilities as being reached there: namely with our consciousness, which functions too dynamically and complexly for AI to be able to effectively see through it. Do you really think that is impossible or simply not yet feasible with the current state of technology?
I cannot judge what will be possible in the future. What I can say is that AI draws conclusions from information and data that is already there. Events and performances are quantified and then reproduced. So artificial intelligence can imitate music that sounds like Mozart's, but it cannot create a fundamentally new style of music. It is not able to interpret, to take new paths, to be as creative and crazy as we humans are.
Do you share certain concerns about new technologies?
I don't see problems with the technology itself, but with the way we use it. We are in danger of spending too much time in front of screens, on mobile phones. The danger is that many people miss out on personal, physical contact with fellow human beings. However, we all need encounters with other people, in private as well as public settings, so that we can feel comfortable, get to know ourselves and make contacts. If we move mainly in virtual spaces, this can lead to psychological problems such as depression. From my point of view, it is also important to keep an eye on what happens with our personal data. In our profiles, for example on social media, we present ourselves in certain roles, construct an image of ourselves as we want to be seen. Many also reveal private things or make rash statements. What is not realised is that the virtual space is not protected. Everything we deposit there can be used against us. This can have fatal consequences, because everyone has secrets that they should not reveal. But if they are on the internet, it can lead to public condemnation.
Because then suddenly all of us, or many of us, become problematised. We become vulnerable. We need our privacy where we can make inappropriate statements, even express raw feelings. It makes no sense for the public to know about it because it is decompensation. You vent so that you can behave or conform again. They should remain secret, also so society can function and people can get along.
You also say it could be a fallacy to believe that we are far superior to previous generations, that we know better today. Constant evolution is a myth. What do you mean by that?
Materially and technologically, we are ahead of previous generations today. But technology is not the only criterion of evolution. There is also the question of whether we as humans have developed more skills, become cleverer and more competent. It seems to me that it is a misconception that we as humans are superior to our ancestors and primordial ancestors. Technology does not make us better human beings; in fact, it probably makes us the opposite. The assumption in anthropology today is that man became more selfish and antisocial as a result of urbanisation. He began to delegate help to fellow human beings to institutions and looked after himself first and foremost. Today, most people wear earplugs in public spaces, ignore what is happening around them, become zombies. Is that progress?
Is there, for you personally, a line that should not be crossed with technology?
I think it is valuable that with the intelligent use of data or also AI, an insightful information base can be laid that helps us to make better decisions. We should be able to consult this data, but the power of interpretation and decision-making must remain with us humans in the future. For example, algorithms should not decide on the allocation of children to schools, as is proposed today, but the decision must lie with thinking people, because algorithms are partly based on prejudices and there are always factors that have not yet been recognised. The decision-making power must remain with us thinking people with our important competences such as imagination, empathy and our sense for the extraordinary.
In Japan, there are already people who have relationships with virtual "personalities" and even marry them. In your opinion, is this an exceptional phenomenon or even the beginning of a new development?
In a similar form, this also exists with us. Small children see a friend in their teddy bears or other stuffed figures and talk to them. This is called animism. A large number of mountain bikers put their bikes in their bedrooms, next to their beds, so that they are always in contact with their bikes. We are capable of animating things. This is not an abnormal development. But of course: even if we animate objects, they cannot replace relationships. Relationships live from confrontations, from surprises and are not only there to satisfy our desires. Referring to the example from Japan, it can be said that culture also plays a role, that in this context people then also get married. I don't think that this will ever take on these forms here.
Deepfakes are also circulating on the internet. They can make us believe that a celebrity is speaking to us, but in fact his or her image is generated by software. Does it matter at all to us whether a computer or a human being is telling us something?
In my opinion, authenticity is very important in certain contexts. Deepfakes are deceptions. However, when it comes to celebrities, they are already projection carriers of our own desires or aggressions. We have mentally taken possession of them and endowed them with characteristics. In a certain sense, they are already a fake for us. The deepfakes then perhaps even correct our projections. When it comes to politicians or otherwise socially relevant figures, then of course the question of conscious manipulation arises. I think we need to develop a new judgment skill to be able to recognize such deepfakes. Reading has made such a process. Apparently, when the Scriptures were spread, people believed that everything that was written was true. We have changed our thinking. Now we must also increasingly question images.
What would you like to see in the future in terms of technology and the way we deal with it?
I would like people to adopt a benevolent but also critical attitude toward technology. Technology makes many things possible and opens up opportunities for us. But we must always keep an eye on the risks as well - and above all, we must not forget the human factor. People have a will of their own, they don't behave exactly the way we think. I get the best results not just with questionnaires, but by talking to people directly, even when things are chaotic and not everything runs according to defined rules.
About Allan Guggenbühl
Allan Guggenbühl (* 1952) is the leading psychologist in the German-speaking area and a best-selling author. His most important publications include “The terrible – Mythological Reflections on the Abysmal in Man” and “The incredible Fascination of Violence”. For a bottle of wine, Allan began to counsel difficult adolescents in the 1980s. He hasn’t been out of it since. When Allan has time (which is basically never), he plays guitar, goes biking or studies islands.