Helga Nowotny, sociologist: ‘The metaverse will be a time machine’

The renowned scholar and co-founder of the European Research Council believes that ‘co-evolution’ between machines and humans is changing our perception of time

Helga Nowotny metaverso
Helga Nowotny, Professor Emeritus of Social Studies of Science at ETH Zurich University, in Barcelona.Albert Garcia
Patricia Coll Rubio

The metaverse will be a digital time machine powered by predictive algorithms, and it will influence the decisions of a humanity that, to calm its own yearning for certainty, runs the risk of conditioning a future that is not really written yet, warns Helga Nowotny. Born in Vienna, this renowned scholar holds a PhD in Sociology from Columbia University in New York and is a professor emeritus of Science and Technology Studies at ETH Zurich. The 85-year-old is also a co-founder of the European Research Council and member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, among other honors. Nowotny recently traveled to Barcelona to present the Spanish edition of her 2021 book In AI We Trust: Power, Illusion and Control of Predictive Algorithms.

Question. Is the human-machine interaction you describe in your book unstoppable?

Answer. Yes. It is a co-evolution that has no end point. Two interacting species, in this case humans and machines, influence each other constantly. Therefore, we are before an open process that is still in the early stages. We have begun to see what we can do with algorithms and artificial intelligence. Many people are surprised, for example, to see what a machine can produce if it has enough data, such as images or texts, with applications based on artificial intelligence such as GPT-3 or DALL-E. Today we have reached this point, but tomorrow we will continue to be even more surprised. Machines are faster than our brains, they learn and they can process large amounts of data. However, artificial intelligence does not understand how humans handle information, nor is it creative in the sense that we humans are, in the way we ask ourselves questions about why things happen and how we can change them.

Q. We tend to wonder what will happen in the future. Will predictive algorithms help us make forecasts, or will they lead us to make wrong decisions?

A. Humans have been interested in the future since the beginning of time. But we can’t really know what the future holds for us. Now we have predictive algorithms that are based on data from the past to predict the future, but not everything can be predicted. The Covid pandemic, which could not be predicted, is confirmation that the future is uncertain. The algorithms are based on probabilities. If we believe too much in what the machines predict, we run the risk of agreeing with them, and they are not always right. The meaning of the future must be given by us as we interpret the information that the machines give us. We shouldn’t be afraid of them either, because when we are afraid we become paralyzed. Inaction and passivity are the worst option.

Q. Like inaction in the face of the climate emergency?

A. Exactly. Surely we must act. The positive part of predictive algorithms is that they can help us make better decisions, which are very necessary in the field of sustainability. A specific example would be that of energy consumption, which can be planned if the available data is well analyzed. The problem is that scientists know how to manage uncertainty, with an orderly skepticism that allows progress, but politicians do not.

Q. What effects does digitization have on the transformation of society?

A. The most important one is the impact on work. Some jobs will disappear and others will be created. Here the main challenge will be regulatory. Because if a machine rejects you, you cannot appeal. That is why it is so important to regulate everything that has to do with artificial intelligence. In the United States, they are skeptical when it comes to regulating. In China, regulation is subject to the will of an authoritarian power. Europe, which is halfway, has started taking steps with data protection, with a good legal text that is nevertheless difficult to implement. You have to regulate as much as possible and go step by step, especially in the field of transparency of the algorithms.

Q. Given this lack of regulation, is power right now in the hands of the technology giants?

A. This is true. It is necessary to see where the points of intervention are. Currently, we are focused on data privacy, yet people are still agreeing to give away their data to Big Tech. Yet paradoxically, during the pandemic, all the countries had problems managing data on health trends.

Q. Why do you think our perception of time is changing?

A. Technology makes us live in a time machine. And this causes a change in our perception, creates a feeling that the present is expanding more and more. Images from the James Webb telescope now allow us to see what happened millions of years ago. The past is coming to the present. And the same goes for the future with predictive algorithms. We feel that everything is happening in the present. That’s the time machine. The past comes into the present, and so does the future. The metaverse, therefore, will be a time machine.

Q. With the data that you have, do you dare to predict what the future will be like?

A. No, because it’s impossible to know. I hope that with the help of science we can convince ourselves that we only have one planet, no matter how much we explore others, and that we can learn from past disasters to do things better. But the future is not written.

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