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No Fear Of Artificial Intelligence

Kenza Ait Si Abbou has become a star in the digital scene. Now the expert for robotics and artificial intelligence wants to enthuse people about technology outside her bubble and has written a book about it. A conversation about digital know-how, real opportunities and the biggest misunderstandings

This article is also available in German

The title of your book: ‘Keine Panik, ist nur Technik’ (‘Don’t panic, it’s only technology’) provides a deep insight. Why are there such reservations about this topic?

These fears are mostly connected with robotics and artificial intelligence. Nobody is afraid of the smartphone, although there is a lot of technology built in. At its core is the fear of losing control. What we don’t know is what scares us. And as a reflex we choose the avoidance strategy instead of dealing with it. Which is unfortunately the wrong reaction. As Marie Curie so aptly said: ‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it’s only to be understood’.

But people still love science fiction. So where does this fear come from?

It has a lot to do with the way the media communicate it and how it paints the negative picture of AI. As a result, people immediately get the Terminator cliché in their heads. And this is where the mistake begins. Because it is a purely external representation, this is the hardware. But AI is mainly about software.

You have lived abroad a lot, including Spain and China. Does Germany have a skeptical attitude towards technology?

Yes, I would say so. And interestingly, it has to do with the fear of losing control that we talked about. In Germany everything has to go according to plan. And if it doesn’t, people go into shock. The feeling of no longer being able to control things and having to improvise is something that German culture cannot cope with. What is missing is flexibility. I have often experienced this in my everyday work, in project management. And that’s why it’s hard to accept that machines are now learning and taking over certain tasks themselves – while at the same time overestimating the level of technology. In many areas we are only at the beginning, we are in the research phase. There are still countless quality measures and safety checks to be carried out. There are high standards. After all, we are talking about Germany!

“The dangerous thing is not the technology itself, but how we use it”

On the one hand, there is an irrational fear of robots and, at the same time, we overlook real risks, such as those posed by social media. How can this schizophrenia be explained?

Valid and important point. I would advise anyone who has not yet done so to watch ‘The Social Dilemma’ on Netflix. This is really scary. It makes you understand how much we have revealed through our data. That the systems can now predict our next purchase and know more about us than we do. But that’s not even the worst. What is much more devastating is that social media can contribute to the polarization of the political camps and ultimately pose a threat to democracy. Nevertheless, the dangerous thing here is not the technology itself, but how we use it. I like to use the analogy with a bread knife: It can cut bread and it can hurt people. It is up to us how we use the knife, or AI.

It’s clear: We have to do a lot more educational work…

Absolutely. If people don’t know the principles on which these social media platforms, or even AI work, they won’t be able to understand the discussions about privacy and data economy, for example. And without this knowledge, people cannot deal responsibly with the platforms or with their own data.

Do you enjoy this mediating role and explaining the AI world to people?

Yes. The beauty of these – as I call them – AI For Everyone-Workshops is that you see an effect very quickly. If people are still reluctant at the beginning, they have shed their fear and skepticism after these lectures. You can see that in their faces. I really hope to achieve the same effect with my book.

Do people also have an obligation to deal with these issues? After all, the information is out there, and not only through your book.

Yes, I think so. That was also the impulse to write this book: I would like to explain these topics to a broader audience. And I deliberately chose this ‘old’, conventional medium of the book. My goal is to reach people who don’t have that much knowledge about digitalization yet. That’s why we chose a cover with a lifestyle design. But I find the point about the obligation to bring something to the table very interesting. You can’t always complain that everything is so complex and that you no longer understand the world. You also have to act on it. It’s already beginning to happen that more and more bank branches are closing. Soon they and even post offices will cease to exist. So you won’t be able to do your banking without a cell phone. And also the occupational fields will change completely in the future – without exception. There will be no job where automation and machine learning will not have an impact. By the way, there won’t be any in the creative industries either. Even the composition of music, films, trailers and texts, even prose. AI can do all that.

“You can’t always complain that everything is so complex and that you no longer understand the world. You also have to act on it”

That’s why education is so important and, above all, to make young girls excited about technology. You are a role model for many in this respect. Do you feel comfortable with it?

Personally, I have mixed feelings on the topic of role modeling. This is also due to the fact that I have never needed role models myself. I simply did what I was interested in and what I felt like doing from an early age. I didn’t need anybody to orientate myself by. But I was labeled like this. And if I can make a difference with it, it’s okay. I really care about young girls and how we can strengthen their self-confidence. There are many studies that show that at the age of six or seven they are still completely open to tech topics and take part in robotics or computer science courses in the same proportion. A few years later, among eleven-year-olds, the proportion already drops to 20 percent. Puberty is the critical age at which we lose the girls. That’s why we have to take countermeasures and influence them when they are between six and nine years and strengthen their self-confidence. In this phase, you have to make sure that they experience the first sense of success. So that when they reach puberty, it won’t drop again.

What do we have to prepare for in the next few years? What will it depend on?

We will have to learn a lot on the job. With books, blogs, video tutorials. Or maybe even with a second degree, a master’s. With one hundred percent certainty, new jobs will emerge that we don’t even know exist today. Who would have thought five years ago that data scientists would one day be among the most sought-after jobs? Or mathematicians? Ten or 15 years ago, people had problems finding a job because there were no vacancies. Imagine that! Today, even before they have finished their studies, they can hardly escape from job offers. And also humanities scholars, like linguists, encounter completely new fields, for example when it comes to programming chatbots. Or psychologists who know how we function and act with regard to human-machine interaction. Or sociologists who can explain and predict what impact all this will have on society. In addition to that, there is a changed working world in which knowledge distribution and hierarchies are organized differently. In other words: Everything is changing. But that is good news.

Learn more about Kenza: Here is her website

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